Idaho legislator told to rein in travel expenses

(Idaho Falls) Post RegisterFebruary 13, 2014 

Jeff Thompson

CORRECTION: The table accompanying this story originally misreported Sen. Bart Davis' expenses due to incorrect information from the Idaho Senate offices.

Idaho Speaker of the House Scott Bedke asked an Idaho Falls lawmaker to rein in future travel requests when Idaho taxpayers are footing the bill.

Three-term Republican Rep. Jeff Thompson was requested by Bedke to limit his travel — and reimbursement requests — to groups in which Thompson has established leadership positions.

“I sat down with Rep. Thompson, and I’ve asked him to prioritize his travel,” Bedke said. “I am certainly supportive of him … representing Idaho in these national organizations, but I think that he and I agree that he should concentrate his travel with these organizations where he has a leadership role.”

Thompson requested more than $15,000 in travel reimbursement last year. As vice chairman of the Council of State Governments-West, Thompson requested reimbursement for travel to the council’s meetings. He also attended two national conferences last year for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit think tank focused on free market, limited government and division of powers between the federal and state governments.

It is commonplace for lawmakers to request travel reimbursement for trips to and from their home district each weekend, Bedke said. Legislators also are compensated for travel to and from interim legislative committee work that takes place outside of the regular session.

But reimbursement for an Idaho lawmaker to attend other events, such as national conferences related to legislative issues, aren’t so cut and dry, Bedke said.

Thompson said he’s “extremely cognizant” of the costs to taxpayers for his travel reimbursements. But his involvement in the state governments council, Thompson said, has direct ties to issues such as improving Idaho’s criminal justice system through a multi-state justice reinvestment program.

“I’ve expressed that I’m interested in growing myself in this legislative seat,” he said. “What I mean by that, and how I look at that, is the more educated on the issues and the more I can go out and meet other legislators throughout the Northwest and other parts of the country, the more value I can bring to my constituents.”

The Post Register made a public records request of all salary and travel reimbursement in the last year requested by House and Senate members serving legislative districts 30 to 35, the newspaper’s readership area. The newspaper also asked for salary and travel reimbursement requests made by Bedke, R-Oakley, to compare his totals due to his leadership role.

Thompson made 11 travel reimbursement requests from January to October 2013, totaling $15,285.31. Those requests included travel to and from Boise during the session and interim committee meetings, as well as travel to various conferences throughout the year. That amount also included four trips to conferences outside the state.

In comparison, Bedke, who requested travel reimbursement for 25 trips within that same time frame, requested $6,492.48. Legislators from districts 30 to 35 requested about $123,550 in total travel reimbursement last year.

Thompson said his travel requests reflect his ambitious goals to ensure eastern Idaho has a seat at the table on state and national issues.

“I’ve made it clear to leadership that I want to be involved as much as they need me to be involved,” he said.

On the Senate side of the rotunda, Republican Majority Leader Sen. Bart Davis, also of Idaho Falls, requested the most in travel compensation — $17,532.89 — among district 30 to 35 legislators. Longtime Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Linden Batemen requested the least for travel, $1,186.33.

“I don’t even carry a cellphone,” Bateman said. “I’m very basic and very frugal.”

While some legislators have more responsibility and more need for reimbursement, Bateman said, Idahoans can be proud of their part-time, citizen Legislature.

“I hesitate to make too many requests to go across the United States,” Bateman said. “You can learn much of that from the Internet.”

Different members of the Legislature have different requests due to a variety of things, Bedke said, including their involvement in minority or majority leadership positions. Those in leadership roles, such as Davis, tend to have more Legislative responsibilities that require more travel.

The involvement of legislators in councils and organizations outside, but related, to their legislative duties also plays a role. Other factors can include where in the state legislators live, whether it’s easier to drive or fly and how active their interim committee is.

Thompson is not the first — or only legislator — to request reimbursement to attend conferences or meetings outside the state, Bedke said.

Bedke, as did Thompson, pointed to Idaho’s recent involvement in justice reinvestment to bring criminal system costs down is one good example of how Idaho legislators can benefit from attending meetings outside Idaho.

“But it’s my job to make sure we get return on these travel dollars,” Bedke said.

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