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

Lawmakers’ challenge Justify those out-of-state trips

Monday and Tuesday were the meetings of legislative budget working groups. They met to discuss ways to reduce the $60 million state agencies spent on travel in 2016. Before the hearings began, each legislator had asked each head of an agency a series questions about their travel budgets. First, they were asked to describe the ways that each agency cut down on trips out of state. The reasons behind taking trips and methods to cut them differed by department. In fiscal 2016, just over $500,000 of $5.6 million in travel budget from the Department of Health was used for out-of-state travel. The bulk of this money went to conferences and training sessions. Dr. Mary Currier is the state health officer for this department. She said that out-of-state travel has been reduced by almost 50 percent over the past year. It went from 587 in 2015, to 440 in 2016, and was down nearly 50 percent overall. To allow more than one employee to attend a conference they must now obtain written permission from Dr. Mary Currier. Currier stated that the average department trip out of state costs $1,100, but that expenses can vary. Currier stated that a claim for $103 is one person driving to and returning from a trip. “If you look at the list of expenses, it varies all of the way up to $3,000 – but that is a two-week training at the CDC Atlanta.” In 2016, the Department of Child Protection Services spent $7.2million on travel. CPS, a department of the Department of Human Services is $4.5 million more than their parent department. Child Protection Services is a job that requires travel. The majority of the time that case workers spend in the car is spent checking on their children and their families at home. Only $177,000 of the $7.2 million in travel funds last year went to trips out-of-state. According to Takesha Darby (deputy commissioner of finance for Child Protection Services), this was almost exclusively used to transport children to foster or adoptive homes in neighboring states, and then follow up with them. Many agencies allowed the federal government to pick up the bill for travel out of state. The 23 out-of-state trips that the Department of Health paid for last year were covered by the state. Only $7,900 of $896,000 spent by the Department of Human Services on out-of state travel was funded by the state. John Davis, the executive director of Department of Human Services, stated that a large portion of the travel was for federally mandated programs and training sessions. Davis stated that unless the federal government is willing to pay the bill, they won’t travel. Diana Mikula is the executive director of Department of Mental Health. She said that her department requires employees to go through several hoops in order to request state travel. Most of these requests concern continuing education for professionals such as nurses, doctors, and mental therapists. Employees must complete forms detailing their training needs and whether they can receive it online or locally, even if certification is required. These forms are then approved by a supervisor. Once employees have returned, they must give the department a continuing education certificate. This goes into their file. Rep. Omeira Scott (D-Laurel) praised the department’s efforts to eliminate unnecessary expenses. “I want to commend the Department of Mental Health for the way that you operate and how you handle the training of your employees. Scott stated that although it is federal money, we all pay taxes so it’s still our money. Melinda McGrath, Department of Transportation, was asked to explain the spending of thousands of taxpayer dollars on travel. As in previous meetings, simple answers were not possible due to the complexity of this billion-dollar department. The Department of Transportation provided more than 50 pages of documentation to lawmakers. It included detailed information about in-and out-of-state travel and a list of the expenses for each trip. Melinda McGrath, Executive Director of MDOT, stated that every Mississippi bridge must be inspected every two years as a federal requirement. A bridge that is in poor condition might require inspection every other week. McGrath stated that the agency must be able “to fulfill their mission to state which is to design and to invest in the most cost-efficient structures required.” “Then, we examine what certifications are required to inspect bridges and at what speed these inspections must be performed in order meet the federal requirement.” Phillip Gunn, Speaker of the House, was interested in the expenditures made by MDOT employees. McGrath was asked by Gunn what percentage of employees were involved in maintenance and construction. McGrath stated that 2,300 of the 3,200 employees are directly responsible for putting asphalt on roads. Gunn stated that there are approximately 900 people performing some type of office job. They are in an administrative role of some kind. They don’t actually do the road work. They are engineers. They are an engineer, or another type of employee. McGrath asked, “Is that a true description?” “No sir,” McGrath replied. “No sir,” McGrath added, “It’s not. It’s close.” McGrath said, “Roughly 85 per cent of our employees don’t sit behind a desk most days.” McGrath stated that 2,300 of those she quoted were MDOT employees. The number of employees who are based at MDOT’s headquarters was not included in the calculation. McGrath stated that the traffic division, located in Jackson, is not included in the 2,300. The sign crew is also available to put up large green signs on state roads. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves stayed focused on the details: “Of these 43 pages of information can you tell me where the trip to National Police Shooting Championship’s is?” McGrath asked, “Is it in that document?” Reeves replied, “On page 40” McGrath answered. “Okay, as I don’t think anyone has the time right now to read it all, we’ll have a later reading. These competitions sound just like they sound. Is this just law enforcement from across the country competing for the title? Marksmanship? Willie Huff, MDOT’s Director for Enforcement explained that championships are used by the Enforcement Division to meet other firearms trainers and vendors as well as to learn about the latest technology and techniques. In a statement later released by the Department of Transportation McGrath stated that MDOT spends.2 percent of its budget on travel, with half of out-of-state travel going to meetings on national standards or policies. McGrath stated that having the department present at these meetings is crucial to have the state represented in transportation decision-making. “In my experience, rural States like Mississippi are often left behind when it comes to national transportation discussions. When mass transit is under discussion, states with large urban centers can overshadow rural states. McGrath stated that McGrath spoke on behalf of the citizens and taxpayers of the state. We want to be able to influence change in Mississippi that will benefit us and reject those that would hurt us. Correction: An earlier version incorrectly attributed Mark McConnell a quote. This article has been updated to reflect Willie Huff’s role as speaker. Support this work by making a regular donation today to celebrate our Spring Member Drive. We will continue to do important work such as this one. 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