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As state workers stay grounded, Florida lawmakers hit the road

TALLAHASSEE — Seeking to cut costs in hard times, the Legislature banned most out-of-state travel by state employees. But the travel restriction doesn't apply to lawmakers themselves, dozens of whom are headed to national conferences this week and next at public expense.

The Senate will spend up to $24,000 to send six senators to this week's American Legislative Exchange Council conference in Atlanta and six others and a staff member to attend next week's gathering in Philadelphia of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The House will spend as much as $31,000 to send 27 representatives to the conferences. The House limits each lawmaker to $1,150 for one conference at state expense, and the Senate will pay $2,000 for each member.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has a larger and longer conference, featuring dozens of workshops, on everything from the economy to election reform to wrongful convictions. Guest speakers include entrepreneur Bill Gates; Bill Purcell, director of the Harvard Institute of Politics; and NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly.

The American Legislative Exchange Council is a Republican-leaning group that claims its 2009 conference is one of the largest gathering of conservatives this year. Among the featured speakers are former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; author and commentator Peggy Noonan; economist Arthur Laffer; and Pete Coors, chairman of the Molson Coors Brewing Co.

Throughout the spring session, legislators questioned what some considered excessive junketeering by bureaucrats to out-of-state conferences during a grinding recession that led to a massive shortfall in tax revenue. As a result, the state budget that took effect July 1 limits travel over the next year to "activities that are critical to each agency's mission."

No state money can be used to travel out of state unless the agency head approves in writing that the trip is mission-critical. Travel that is related to law enforcement, military, emergency management or public health is exempt from the restriction.

But lawmakers put no such restrictions on their travel. The $55,000 cost for their conference travel is the equivalent of funding 21 children in prekindergarten classes, or reinstating bonuses for seven teachers who become nationally certified, or paying for $117 in vaccines for 470 underprivileged children.

Rep. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, said his attendance at the American Legislative Exchange Council conference is money well spent.

"Faced with the problems that we have with the property insurance situation in Florida, I feel it's imperative that I get all the information I can to try to solve those problems," Hays said. "I'm going for the working sessions. I'm not just going for the meals and speeches."

Rep. Jimmy Patronis, a Panama City Republican, the House chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council in Florida, is also going to Atlanta, but said he is paying all of the costs out of his own pocket. "It might be an option that might play a little better at home or in your own back yard," Patronis said.

Legislators from the Tampa Bay region who are conference-bound are Republican Sen. Dennis Jones of Treasure Island and Republican Rep. Jim Frishe of St. Petersburg, both of whom are attending the America Legislative Exchange Council conference, which begins today and ends Saturday.

Two senators seeking statewide office are delegates to the American Legislative Exchange Council conference: Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, a candidate for attorney general, and Carey Baker, R-Eustis, who's running for agriculture commissioner.

Staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

As state workers stay grounded, Florida lawmakers hit the road 07/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 15, 2009 12:43pm]
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