Lawmakers are focusing on the travel expenses of state agencies in the latest round of budget panel hearings that began Monday and will continue Tuesday in Jackson.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves stated he would like to see a cut in the more than $60 million agencies spent on travel last fiscal year.
“If we saved 10 percent, that’s $6 million. That could be spent in priority areas,” Reeves tweeted during the hearings.
Working groups, organized by the Legislature’s leadership this summer, are examining the state’s tax code as well as how they distribute funds to state agencies.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections will spend $687,000 on travel-related expenses in fiscal year 2017, up from about $450,000 in fiscal year 2012, according to Commissioner Marshall Fisher.
Lawmakers questioned Fisher about certain conferences and training courses listed in paperwork distributed to the panel. In one instance, 15 MDOC employees attended the same conference in Boston.
“I think my constituents would like us to differentiate between necessary travel and unnecessary travel, which is really the purpose of these questions today,” said Reeves.
“I think certain things make sense, like traveling to train literacy coaches, as we heard this morning (from the Department of Education). A question my constituents would like answered is, ‘Do we really need to send 15 people to the same conference and 16 people to another one?’ Could we send just five or six and get the same results? That’s what I’m most interested in today.”
Administrators of the eight state-supported universities were asked before Monday’s meeting to submit answers to four questions:
• What are your policies regarding in-state, overnight travel?
• What are your internal policies for out-of-state travel?
• Do you allow out-of-state travel for employees who are required to obtain continuing education every year for their professional licenses? Attorneys, doctors, accountants, etc.
• What mechanism do you have in place to verify if an employee actually attended a conference meeting?
The responses varied. While many of these institutions’ policies are guided by the travel rules and regulations set by Mississippi Code of 1972, there is no uniform policy established by the Institutes of Higher Learning.
The total travel expenditures for all eight schools was $16.5 million for fiscal year 2016. Less than one percent of institutions’ funds are used for travel.
The University of Mississippi Medical Center incurred $3,414,018 in out-of-state travel expenses compared to Mississippi University for Women’s total of $168,340 in out-of-state travel.
Dr. Glenn Boyce, state commissioner of higher education, explained that UMMC demanded the largest amount of travel expenses because representatives of the medical center participate in conferences, most of which are held in other states.
How necessary it is for employees to attend the conferences, Reeves asked. Researchers from around the country present new techniques that can increase the quality of care at the Mississippi medical center, Boyce explained.
Reeves also asked the amount all colleges spend for student trips and recruitment. Boyce agreed to follow up with an answer.
In her presentation to the panel, state Education Superintendent Carey Wright said in-state travel makes up a majority of her department’s travel expenses. Reading coaches and other specialists spend many hours moving from district to district within the state, Wright said.
She said one cash saver implemented the past year is that instead of requiring teachers come to Jackson for training, the department now deploys its employees to the districts.
Within the Division of Medicaid, the federal government reimburses 50 percent of travel expenses. As a result, the state paid just $400,000 of the department’s travel budget last year, according to Dr. David Dzielak, executive director of the Division of Medicaid.
During fiscal year 2016, 80 of the department’s 1,034 employees traveled for work. Dzielak said most of the department’s expenditures center on in-state travel between offices. The department operates one central office in Jackson and 30 regional offices around the state.
“It’s to do with things like guarding against fraud, waste and abuse. Or our IT folks have to travel to regional offices as well,” he said.
But travel to conferences again received the most scrutiny from legislators. Speaker of the House Philip Gunn noted that a Las Vegas conference attended by one employee cost the department $2,800.
“I think it would be hard for many of my constituents to understand why there’s a need for 80 employees to travel to places like San Destin, Las Vegas and Jackson Hole,” said Reeves. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that some of these conferences are very important. … But there is a point at which it does not make sense for people to travel.”
Dzielak said he personally signs off on every travel request in the department, explaining that each trip to a conference is evaluated on three factors.
“It’s whether it’s directly related to their job with Medicaid, the amount of experience they’re going to gain (at the conference), and whether the information can be gained either online or in-state rather than this conference,” Dzielak said. “But the vast majority of our travel is in-state.”
Lawmakers also heard from the Department of Public Safety Monday afternoon.
The department spends about half a million dollars per year on travel, according to Deputy Administrator Ken Magee. Much of that travel is reimbursed with federal grant money if state employees attend certain training sessions.
The panel of lawmakers will gather for additional hearings at the Capitol on Tuesday.