Lawmakers’ challenge: Justify those out-of-state trips

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Kelly Breland, director of administration at the Department of Mental Health, and Diana Mikula, executive director of the Department of Mental Health, just before the hearing on agency travel budgets on Tuesday.

Larrison Campbell

Kelly Breland, director of administration at the Department of Mental Health, and Diana Mikula, executive director of the Department of Mental Health, prepare for the hearing on agency travel budgets on Tuesday.

Although many state agencies spend less than 10 percent of their travel budgets out of state, lawmakers still focused much of their attention on whittling down these trips during the second day of budget panel hearings in Jackson.

The legislative budget working groups met Monday and Tuesday to find cuts in the $60 million that state agencies spent on travel in 2016.

Prior to the hearings, legislators had given each agency head a series of questions about their travel budgets. The first question asked them to explain the methods each agency used to cut back on out-of-state trips. But the reasons for taking trips and the methods for cutting them varied widely by department.

Just over $500,000 of the Department of Health’s $5.6 million travel budget was spent on out-of-state travel in fiscal year 2016, the bulk going to training sessions and conferences. Dr. Mary Currier, state health officer for the department, said out-of-state trips had been cut by nearly 50 percent in the last year, going from 587 in 2015 to 440 in 2016. If more than one employee wants to attend a conference, they’re now required to get written permission directly from her.

On average, the department spends $1,100 per out-of-state trip, but Currier said costs can run the gamut.

Dr. Mary Currier, state health officer

Mississippi Dept. of Health

Dr. Mary Currier, state health officer

“One claim is for $103 – one person probably driving somewhere for the day and coming right back,” Currier said. “If you look at (the list of expenses) it varies all the way up to more than $3,000 – but that’s a two week training at the CDC in Atlanta.”

The Department of Child Protection Services spent $7.2 million on travel in 2016. Although CPS is a division of the Department of Human Services, they outspent their parent department on travel by $4.5 million dollars.

But travel is the nature of the job in Child Protection Services. Case workers spend much of their time in the car, checking on children and families in their homes. As a result, only $177,000 of last year’s $7.2 million travel budget went to out-of-state trips. This was almost solely devoted to transporting children to new adoptive or foster homes in neighboring states and then following up with them, according to Takesha Darby, deputy commissioner of finance for Child Protection Services.

Many agencies let the federal government pick up the tab for out-of-state travel. The state paid for 23 of the 440 out-of-state trips in the Department of Health last year. In the Department of Human Services, only $7,900 of the $896,000 spent on out-of-state travel came from state funds. John Davis, executive director of the Department of Human Services, said much of the travel went to federally mandated training sessions and programs.

“Unless the feds want to pick up the bill, we just don’t go,” Davis said.

Diana Mikula, executive director of the Department of Mental Health, said her department makes employees jump through a number of hoops when requesting out of state travel.

The majority of these requests involve continuing education for professions such as doctors, nurse practitioners and mental therapists. Even when certification is required for a job, employees must fill out forms detailing the type of training they’re seeking and whether that training can be completed locally or online. A supervisor then approves these forms. After employees return, they must provide the department with a continuing education certificate that goes into their file.

Larrison Campbell

Rep. Omeira Scott, D-Laurel, at the legislative budget hearing on travel Tuesday.

Rep. Omeira Scott, D-Laurel, praised the department for taking these steps to weed out unnecessary expenses.

“I would like to commend you in the Department of Mental Health in the way you operate and the way you’re handling the training of your employees. Of course it’s federal funds, but we all pay taxes, so it’s still our money,” Scott said.

The Department of Transportation’s Melinda McGrath was asked to justify the thousands of taxpayer dollars the department spends on travel. But as in previous meetings, the complexity of the billion-dollar department eluded simple answers.

The Department of Transportation issued more than 50 pages to the lawmakers, documenting in- and out-of-state travel, listing the purposes and the expenditures for each trip.

MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath said that the federal requirement requires every bridge in Mississippi to be checked every two years. If a bridge is in particularly bad shape, it might need to be inspected weekly.

“What does the agency need to fulfill their mission to the state, which is to be able to design and invest in the most cost efficient structures needed,” McGrath said. “Then we look at what certifications in order to do these bridge inspections, and at what rate these inspections have to be done in order to meet the federal requirement.”

 

Lawmakers hear from state agency heads, including Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda Myers, during budget meetings at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Zachary Oren Smith

Lawmakers hear from state agency heads, including Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda McGrath, during budget meetings at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn was interested in which MDOT employees are expending the travel dollars. He began by asking McGrath what percentage of the department’s employees are engaged in the maintenance and construction of projects.

McGrath said that of 3,200 employees approximately 2,300 are directly putting asphalt on roads.

“That’s about 900 people who are performing some sort of — for lack of a better term — office job,” Gunn said. “They are an administrative position of some sort. They are not actually doing the road work. They are an engineer. They’re an inspector, or some other type of employee, right? Is that an accurate characterization?”

“No sir,” McGrath said, “It is not. But it’s close.”

As McGrath explained, “Roughly 85 percent of our employees do not sit behind a desk most of the time.” McGrath said that the 2,300 employees she first quoted were employees of MDOT’s districts. Those that are based at the headquarters were not added to that number.

“What’s not included (in the 2,300),” McGrath said, “is the traffic division, which is here in Jackson. We also have a sign crew to set up the large green signs on state roads.”

Rather than grapple with the institutional organization, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves grounded himself in the specifics: “Of this 43 pages of information, can you tell me where on here the trip to the National Police Shooting Championship is? Is it in this document?”

After some searching, McGrath said, “On page 40 is the National Police Shooting (Championship).”

“Page 40?” Reeves said. “Okay, since I don’t think any of us have time to read all that right now, we’ll have to do it later. Are these competitions what they sound like? Just law enforcement from around the country coming together and competing for championship? Marksmanship? Is that what these are?”

MDOT’s Director of Enforcement Willie Huff explained that events like the championship are used by MDOT’s Enforcement Division to interact with other firearms trainers and vendors and to look at the newest technology and techniques.

Melinda McGrath, executive director of the Department of Transportation, reviews a document while meeting with state legislators.

Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

Melinda McGrath, executive director of the Department of Transportation

Later, in a statement issued by the Department of Transportation, McGrath said that travel makes up .2 percent of MDOT’s budget with half of all out-of-state travel being spent on professional staff attending meetings on national standards and policies.  McGrath argued that the department’s presence in these meetings is key to having the state represented in transportation decisions:

“In my experience, rural states like Mississippi are often left behind in national discussions regarding transportation decisions. For example, when mass transit is being discussed, a rural state can be overshadowed by states with major urban hubs.

“For the benefit of the taxpayers and citizens of the state,” McGrath said. “We want a voice affecting change that will help Mississippi and oppose decisions that would harm us. We must have a seat at the table for discussions on transportation at the national and regional levels.”

Correction: An earlier version of the article attributed a quote to Mark McConnell. It has been corrected to show Willie Huff as the speaker

  • Jeff

    “Of course it’s federal funds, but we all pay taxes, so it’s still our money,” – Rep. Omeira Scott, D-Laurel

    This may be the first time I’ve seen this fact stated by an elected official, never mind a Democrat, in the last 30 years. Attagirl, Rep. Scott.