When Rep. JoAn Wood of Rigby sees agency travel expenses at nearly $19 million, she immediately wonders if Idaho state government can get by with less. But that's how much money the state spent on airfare, hotel rooms and automobiles from July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2009, according to an analysis of state spending data by the Idaho Freedom Foundation.
"What if it were $14 million? That would be $5 million saved right there," said Wood, the most senior member of the Idaho House of Representatives at 14 terms and counting.
Wood is well aware that travel is a part of state government; after all, her duties as a state representative require travel - especially during legislative sessions, when expenses include weekend trips home. Those weekend trips are one reason why the House of Representatives have a travel cost of $952,688 for '09.
"But I keep thinking there must be a better way," she said.
Several years ago, she remembers meeting a nursing home inspector from the Department of Health and Welfare Department returning to Boise from eastern Idaho. The inspector flew to Idaho Falls, rented a car to inspect two facilities in Mackey. Along with that came the costs for hotel and meals.
"All that for two inspections," Wood said. "Couldn't the person do two or three more inspections before coming back? Isn't there anyone outside of Boise qualified to do inspections? Would it be better if there were inspectors outside of Boise? Regional offices have been cut to the bone, but people in Boise have held onto their positions."
According to records from the state controller's office, the Department has the highest travel expense in the state, at $1.823 million. Four other agencies have expenses of over $1 million:
• The Department of Transportation, $1.532 million.
• The Department of Fish and Game, $1.122 million.
• The University of Idaho, $1.091 million.
• Boise State University, $1.014 million.
Other agencies are near or above $500,000. That list includes:
• Idaho Senate, $494,639.
• Department of Agriculture, $499,339.
• Idaho State Police, $648,213.
• Department of Lands, 701,079.
• Department of Correction, $711,683.
• Judicial Branch, $723,303.
• Idaho State University, $882,298.
• House of Representatives, $952,687.
Eighteen other agencies are above $100,000. The highest among those, according to records, are:
• State Tax Commission, $312,995.
• Department of Parks and Recreation, $343,236.
• Department of Labor, $365,544.
• Superintendent of Public Instruction, $384,473.
Tom Shanahan, spokesman for the Department of Health and Welfare, says travel is a part of doing business. Idaho has 79 nursing homes, 283 assisted living facilities and more than 30 hospitals under its jurisdiction and all require specialized personnel to do inspections. Other facilities, such as family homes and daycare centers do not require specialized inspections. Those are handled by local health districts, or contracted out.
"Eighty percent of our travel is in state and if it's anything south of Moscow, we're driving. But there are reasons for going out of state," Shanahan said. Conferences to discuss new regulations and children placed in foster homes out of the state are two reasons why the department has to travel out of state.
The Health and Welfare Department has taken steps to reduce its travel budget (it was $2.3 million in '08), but is braced for further cuts in travel if the Legislature continues to cut budgets for programs.
Other agencies have reported spending less for travel in '09. The Fish and Game Department is down $100,000. The Transportation Department reports cutting nearly $200,000. The University of Idaho reports cutting expenses and implementing stricter guidelines for travel. According to university records, international travel has been suspended and future international travel must be approved by the president/provost and executive vice president. Last December, the university cancelled some travel that had been approved.
Mark Warbis, spokesman for the governor's office, said his boss established stricter guidelines in his letter on budget controls last February. In the letter, Gov. Butch Otter wrote: "No employee, commissioner or other state official shall travel outside of the state without prior authorization from (Division of Financial Management). In addition, all agency administrators are strongly encouraging to limit in-state travel to essential functions while utilizing teleconferencing or videoconferencing whenever available."
Warbis said that while "there is always room for improvement and more efficiency in an organization as large, complex and multi-faceted as our state government," Gov. Otter has made finding those efficiencies a high priority.
"He is not mandating how or where they find those efficiencies, but travel certainly is an area that he would consider ‘low-hanging fruit.'"
Rep. Judy Boyle, a freshman representative from Midvale, says she knows where some of that fruit may be hanging.
"The governor's office has invited me, of all people, to places like Rigby, Dover and places along I-84 for ceremonies celebrating transportation projects - whether it's stimulus funding, or GARVEE projects," Boyle said. "I didn't vote for any of these projects and they wanted me there. At these places, they seem to have gold shovels and refreshments.
"Do we have to make a ceremony out of every single project? I appreciated being invited to things with the governor, but I question whether that's wise use of government spending," Boyle said.