"Then again, maybe it’s easier just to nickel and dime state employees over a few cents a mile."
Miles to Go: Shumlin Seeks Travel Savings While Jetting to D.C.
Gov. Peter Shumlin is getting serious about wasteful state spending on travel. At least, when it comes to other people in state government.
Last Thursday, the Shumlin administration ordered agency and department heads to cut their travel budgets by 10 percent this fiscal year, as the Burlington Free Press’ Terri Hallenbeck first reported. Meanwhile, Shumlin’s secretary of administration, Jeb Spaulding, told Hallenbeck he hopes to trim the 56.5-cent-per-mile federal reimbursement rate state employees receive when driving on the job.
In a memo to his underlings, Spaulding wrote that the administration “believes that in many instances departments can accomplish their programmatic responsibilities with less in-state and out-of-state travel.”
Shummy could’ve outlined his new fiscal austerity measures — driven by a deal he cut with legislators in May to avoid new taxes — at a triumphant press conference last Thursday.
Instead, he jetted off to D.C. that very day on a taxpayer-financed trip to give a speech — and to raise money for the partisan political group he chairs, the Democratic Governors Association.
According to spokeswoman Sue Allen, the gov popped down to the nation’s capital Thursday morning to deliver closing remarks at the United States Agency for International Development’s Global Education Summit. He returned to Vermont Thursday night.
“The governor was invited by USAID because he actually knows Christie Vilsack,” Allen explains, referring to the senior USAID education adviser and former first lady of Iowa, whose husband, Tom, happens to serve as secretary of agriculture.
“That is official state business, and the state paid for the ticket,” Allen says.
Shumlin’s airfare? $377.80. That doesn’t include the cost of sending his state police security detail along — a sum the administration declines to disclose.
But education wasn’t the only thing on the governor’s mind during his quickie trip to the Beltway. While there, according to his staff, Shumlin wined and dined a potential donor to the Democratic Governors Association over lunch: Bethesda philanthropist Mary Ann Stein.
Stein didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Is it common practice for the governor to raise money for the DGA while traveling on the state’s dime?
“No, it’s not common practice,” Allen says, adding that it happens “occasionally.”
“If the state’s paying, the trip is official,” she explains. “The governor is making the trip only because it’s official business. If he has an hour in his schedule, as he did today, a couple hours before the speech, in this case the DGA dropped a lunch with a philanthropist in the schedule for him.”
Typically, when the governor travels to DGA events, that organization foots the bill. Such was the case earlier this year when Shumlin took leave of Vermont for the political group’s confabs in Aspen, Nantucket and Maryland.
That arrangement makes sense, given that the DGA’s hyper-partisan mission is to raise money for Democratic candidates and clobber the hell out of Republicans.
But oftentimes, the DGA arranges its get-togethers around meetings of the nonpartisan National Governors Association. In those cases, Allen says, the state pays for Shumlin’s and his staff’s travel expenses.
NGA meetings are “policy heavy,” Allen says, and include “governors-only sessions” that provide the state chiefs “a chance to speak candidly about health care, economic development and other issues.” One recent NGA meeting featured a session for staffers focused on preparing for natural disasters, which Allen and Shumlin chief of staff Liz Miller attended.
But at each of the three NGA trips for which the state paid this year, Shumlin participated in partisan press conferences or fundraising gatherings benefitting the DGA.
The bill to taxpayers? $4547 to send Shumlin and three staffers to Washington in January; $831 to send him and one staffer to Chicago in June; and $1600 to send him and a staffer to Milwaukee earlier this month.
That’s not enough to balance the state budget, to be sure. But surely Shumlin himself could “accomplish [his] programmatic responsibilities with less in-state and out-of-state travel.” Or at least ask the DGA to contribute to his airfare when it takes up his time.
Then again, maybe it’s easier just to nickel and dime state employees over a few cents a mile.