By Amy Lester, The Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- California, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, even Cuba and Canada are just some of the places lawmakers went using taxpayers' money. Lawmakers spent $1.5 million on travel, more than $155,000 to go out of state. The Oklahoma Impact Team learned about these trips while reviewing travel records for 2009.
"If you're trying to be critical of why I went, I think it's obvious why we went," said Senator Charles Wyrick.
Sen Wyrick traveled to Cuba in December of 2008 with the State Secretary of Agriculture and seven other people. The state paid for three people's trips, including Wyrick's $2,232.92 share.
This was the second time he and other Oklahomans traveled to Cuba to negotiate the sale of Hard Red Winter wheat, timber products, livestock protein products and dairy animals. In 2004, they sold $4 million worth of wheat, this time, no sale.
"We went, we made the attempt. We made the sales pitch, but, if they don't have the money and they don't close the deal. That's not in our hands," Wyrick said. "We can't force them to buy product."
Wyrick said even though the United States was in a national recession, he didn't know at the time that Cuba would later not buy anything because of the tough economic times.
"It seems to me, two guys could probably negotiate the same kind of deal," said Vince Orza, Dean of OCU's Meinders School of Business.
We showed a lot of the expense reports to Orza. Some surprised him more than others.
"That's pure arrogance," Orza said, referring to Senator Earl Garrison's trip to the National Conference of State Legislators Summit in Philadelphia, last July. The conference suggested 15 hotels but, Garrison chose to stay at the most expensive one, the Ritz Carlton.
"He's staying at the Ritz Carlton, how nice of him. He should send, we should send thank you notes to all the citizens of Oklahoma," Orza said.
The Oklahoma Impact Team called Senator Garrison, but he did not call back.
Senator Brian Bingman was one of the biggest spenders. He filed travel claims for $7,661.33 worth of Energy Council conferences. Two of the trips were to Canada.
"It's quite an honor to, you know, represent my state," Bingman said. "We make recommendations, talk about policy that affects our state, other states and we send statements to the federal government, work with them you know, on energy policy."
In 2009, Bingman was the vice chairman of the group of energy producing states and Canadian provinces. He went on two trips while state revenue was down and two trips while state agencies faced a 5 percent cut.
When we asked him to tell us about something he's done specifically after going to these conferences that people could see the benefit of, he said, "Uh, there's probably, I'd have to think about that."
During one of Bingman's trips to Canada, he and Senate President Pro Tempore, Glenn Coffee used a limousine service, instead of a taxicab to go from the airport to the hotel. We checked and a taxi runs $70 round trip while the limousine service was $192.56.
"That was a recommendation of the hotel that they recommended using that service, said that was cheaper than going through a taxicab service," Bingman said.
Vince Orza, the Dean of OCU's Meinders School of Business, insisted Bingman should've had staff check or investigate the prices himself.
"His excuse is, he's going to blame the hotel, that's pretty weak," Orza said. "Don't blame the hotel, that's pretty lame."
When the Oklahoma Impact Team looked at travel, we noticed state senators spent far more than representatives. On average, senators spent more than twice as much as representatives traveling out of state.
"I think that these conferences provide an opportunity to learn and develop good policy," said Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee.
While Coffee approves the travel, he never checks to make sure senators attend the conferences while out of town.
"What a member chooses to do with their time away, that is on them and on their conscience what they do," Coffee said.
When state agencies faced 5 percent cuts, some senate staffers took trips. In September, Senator Coffee's Administrative Assistant and the Majority Legislative Director spent $2,392.73 to attend a conference in Austin for professional development and to learn how to become better staffers.
When we asked Coffee if this was appropriate to OK while state agencies were struggling, he said, "I think that you still have to function. You still have to train individuals and create opportunities for them to do well in their jobs, and so yes, I think it is."
One reason why senators likely spent more than representatives is that the House of Representatives suspended travel six months before the Senate did. Senator Coffee decided to wait and ban out of state travel until February of this year.
"I did the best I could with what I had and there are a number of decisions that if I could go back in time, could I change them and maybe make them differently? Perhaps, but, I can't do that," said Coffee.
Speaker of the House Chris Benge stopped travel in August of 2009.
"We needed to put, sacrifice that particular expenditure because we were going to be experiencing tough times," Benge said. "Just like families when they're dealing with their own budget and they see that they're going to be short, you need to make adjustments."
Yet, during Benge's travel freeze, he actually took a trip to Washington, D.C. He spent $884.11 to testify at a Congressional Natural Gas Caucus Hearing to tout a new alternative energy law he authored and promote natural gas. At that time, state agencies faced a 5 percent cut.
"I felt like that was a real opportunity to promote the state and try to do something good I think for Oklahoma and talk about a topic we really have a chance to be a leader on," Benge said.
Typically, representatives pay for between 25 to 75 percent of their trip, depending on how often they go. Plus, the House has caps in place to limit reimbursements. However, Benge decided that he should not pay out of his own pocket for his trip. He approves his own travel. Coffee approves his own as well. Benge said he can't remember another time when the House fully reimbursed a member for travel.
"The unique nature of being able to go before Congress and testify on something that I think was very beneficial to Oklahoma, I felt like warranted a full reimbursement of that trip," Benge said.
Whether it's this trip or any of the others we talked to legislators about, they all said it was not a waste of taxpayers' dollars. It's up to you to decide.
"What you're doing is something the legislature doesn't want to do for themselves and that is shining a light on things they do that cost taxpayers money," Orza said.
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