JACKSON — The Mississippi Development Authority is far and away the state’s leader in government travel abroad.
At least 57 MDA officials since fiscal year 2004 have made hundreds of trips spanning the globe, all in the name of economic development.
Officials have made trips to aviation shows in France, England and Germany; to the annual blues music festival in Nottoden, Norway; to golfing travel and trade shows in Portugal, Mexico and Spain; to a garden and landscape show in China and to trade shows most anywhere that conducts trade.
MDA officials defend their travel, saying it has a mission: to sell Mississippi and its products and lure new businesses here.
“Some of those trips, especially in tourism, I’m going to be honest — if I were not a tourism person, I would probably have the same questions,” said MDA Deputy Director Kathy Gelston when asked about trips to the Nottoden Blues Festival. “But I think you would be surprised if you went to the B.B. King Museum (in Indianola) and saw the very high percentage of visitors from Europe.”
MDA officials say the proof is in the pudding: Trips to Japan have helped land two auto plants and thousands of jobs in the Magnolia State, and continue to attract suppliers and investments. MDA spokeswoman Sally Stackhouse Williams said for fiscal year 2011, projects with MDA assistance resulted in investments in the state of more than $5.4 billion and this year to date nearly $1.9 billion.
Government officials in Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and other states garnered some publicity and questions about travel spending in 2011 when they sent contingencies to the Paris Air Show.
Mississippi sent then-Gov. Haley Barbour’s chief of staff and five MDA officials to the show, at a cost of about $106,000 after deducting about $40,000 in corporate sponsorship.
But Gelston and Williams said GE Aviation’s announcement about a month after the trip that it would invest $56 million in a plant in Ellisville and create 250 jobs over the next few years was a result of such travel. Gelston said another Paris Air Show-related project should be announced within the next year.
“I would defend that one forever,” Gelston said. “We really do think this travel is needed and necessary.”
Hundreds of Mississippi government employees have traveled abroad, from Abu Dhabi to Winnipeg, on the taxpayers’ tab and oversight of such travel appears lax even as agency budgets have been cut.
State records show that from fiscal year 2004 through early this year, more than 300 employees or elected officials from at least 42 agencies have traveled outside the continental United States. Some have made several trips, and the travel spans the globe.
Many state officials appear to favor beautiful resort areas when they travel outside the continental U.S. on the taxpayers’ dime. They’ve been to Maui, Waikiki Beach and Honolulu in Hawaii; Montego Bay, Jamaica; the U.S. Virgin Islands; Rome and Paris.
Mississippi government officials are regulars in Puerto Rico, with dozens of trips made by 65 employees or officials, mainly for conferences and seminars. The U.S. commonwealth island in the Caribbean is particularly popular with the state Department of Transportation, which has sent at least 24 officials and employees there.
Spending for government travel around the state, out of state and out of the country has run about $40 million a year in recent years. This amounts to only a fraction of the state’s $5.5 billion budget. Travel outside the continental U.S. since 2004, according to a Department of Finance and Administration tally, has cost $2.2 million. DFA said that figure could be a little off due to the vagaries of agencies’ coding and record keeping.
But legislative leaders, who it appears halted their own out-of-country travel a few years back, say such spending adds up. They’re vowing to delve deeper into agencies’ spending, and curtail unnecessary travel.
“When agency heads consistently claim they have been cut to the bone, but yet have resources to spend on international travel, it begs the question, what other extraordinary and perhaps unnecessary expenses do they have?” said Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who, records show, has not traveled out of country at taxpayer expense, either as lieutenant governor or when he was state treasurer.
“Of those 300 employees who did travel out of the country, were each and every one of those trips justified for the benefit of the state and its taxpayers?” Reeves said. “That’s a question that needs to be answered.”
Much of the travel outside the continental U.S. has been by the Mississippi Development Authority and other leaders tasked with luring foreign businesses to the state, although some have questioned the amount and frequency of that travel. But some is by smaller agencies one might not expect to travel abroad.
The state Board of Examiners for Social Workers and Marriage and Family Therapists, for instance, has only three employees and 10 board members, with a total budget of less than $300,000. But three from the agency have traveled to Canada for conferences.
Those trips in 2009 and last year cost the agency nearly $9,000. The agency’s total travel cost for 2011 was about $20,000.
Agency Director Billy Dilworth said the travel to Canada was necessary and unavoidable.
“We’re members of the Association of Social Work Boards, which covers 49 states plus Canada and the Virgin Islands,” Dilworth said. “We attend their annual meetings, to keep up on what’s going on in the field of social work.”
But ASWB, according to its website, typically holds its annual meetings in the U.S. The Mississippi officials appear to have chosen to attend spring meetings in Canada instead. In 2009, the association’s annual meeting was in Clearwater Beach, Fla. The Mississippi officials went to the spring meeting, which focused on “Ethical Challenges,” in Quebec. In 2011, the annual meeting was in Oklahoma. But Mississippi officials went to the spring meeting in Vancouver.
Ten people from the state Board of Public Accountancy have traveled outside the continental U.S. since fiscal year 2004 to attend National Association of Boards of Accountancy conferences. The trips were to Maui, San Juan and Vancouver. A trip to Maui in late 2007 by seven people with the agency cost more than $21,000. The board has six employees and seven board members and a total budget of $660,000 for the coming year.
Public Accountancy usually budgets about $40,000 a year for travel. DFA shows the agency spent nearly $39,000 in travel last year. But Public Accountancy Director Susan Harris disputes that amount. She said they spent only about $25,000 on travel, and DFA accountants are wrong to include “per diem” payments to board members and other items as travel.
Some agency heads say they use federal grants, fees their agencies charge to those they serve or regulate and other funds to help cover travel costs.
Department of Marine Resources Director Bill Walker said he believes much of the out-of-country travel by him and 11 others with DMR since fiscal year 2004 was covered by “non-state dollars” such as grants.
State Gaming Commission officials have vast amounts of travel across the world, from Australia to Slovenia, checking on people and companies applying for gambling licenses. Gaming officials say nearly all this travel is billed to the companies, not taxpayers, although there have been some other trips by appointed commissioners to conferences, such as one in Rome. They say the agency’s investigators have to travel, in part to meet with foreign law enforcement and check whether foreign companies have ties to organized crime or other unsavory backgrounds.
“All of that travel is reimbursed by the applicants,” said Gaming Commission Director Allen Godfrey. “We are a special-fund agency, 100 percent, and don’t take a dollar from the taxpayers of Mississippi.”
Forest Thigpen, with the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, takes some umbrage at these defenses for agency spending on travel and other things.
“You hear that all the time, the money some agencies spend comes out of fees they charge the people they license or grants or something,” Thigpen said. “I would think the people who pay those fees might question or raise objections to how some money is spent, because otherwise those fees could be reduced, or that grant money or other revenue could be spent on something else.”
But Godfrey said: “We watch all our dollars closely, even though they are not taxpayers’ dollars.”
Approval for travel, out-of-country and otherwise, typically falls to agency directors or their division directors or agencies’ governing boards. For out of the continental U.S. travel, the state travel-policy handbook requires an employee also fill out a form estimating the cost and get approval from DFA prior to taking the trip.
But DFA officials said their approval mainly consists of checking to see whether the agency has sufficient money to cover the costs, not whether the trip is justified or whether a similar meeting or training could be found closer to home.
Lawmakers typically deal with agency budgets in a lump sum manner and have not gotten into minutiae of agency budgets to scrutinize travel and other spending.
In neighboring Alabama and Louisiana, officials appear to have started scrutinizing government travel closely, and cutting it.
DFA and legislative officials say part of the problem is Mississippi’s accounting system, which makes gathering detailed reports on individual trips difficult. DFA, at the Sun Herald’s request, gathered such records, but said doing so back to fiscal year 2004 was a difficult task and said some figures might be a little off due to agencies and individuals improperly coding out-of-country travel as something else or vice versa.
A new accounting system being installed should soon improve this, DFA and lawmakers said.
“We are working on the technology,” said state Rep. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, who oversees several agency budgets including MDA as an Appropriations subcommittee chair. “We will be able to get down into the weeds on a lot of these budgets where now we just cannot reasonably do it through the paper trails.”
MDA Deputy Director Kathy Gelston said her agency is looking to cut travel and other costs wherever possible, but believes that should be left up to MDA by the Legislature.
“Some agencies, maybe travel is kind of a reward for some,” Gelston said. “But our agency, as much as we travel . it’s work … I like the way the Legislature has given us our budget lump sum, with the way our budget has shrunk over the last number of years. If they want to get in the weeds and truly understand what travel is, I am completely willing, but we don’t want arbitrary decisions made over a 10-minute conversation.”