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State paid lawmakers' costs to attend Chiles funeral

Fifty-three legislators billed the state for $19,685.97 in expenses for attending Gov. Lawton Chiles' funeral in December 1998, a newspaper reported Sunday.

Some legislators spent up to three days traveling to and back home from Tallahassee for the Democratic governor's funeral, billing the state for hotel stays, meals and rental cars, the Florida Times-Union reported, citing public records.

Other legislators who attended the funeral paid their own way.

House Speaker John Thrasher, R-Orange Park, who authorized paying all House members who wanted to attend, defended the action.

"I hope we haven't reached the day when every good and decent act is weighed (by) how much it costs," Thrasher said.

One taxpayer watchdog group, though, is troubled that the costs were deemed "official business," the justification under state law that allows lawmakers to bill the state.

"That would strike many constituents as . . . perhaps not a good use of their dollars," said Pete Sepp, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Taxpayers Union.

In some other states where sitting governors have died, legislators have not been allowed to be reimbursed for the costs of attending the funeral. That happened in Vermont in 1991, after Gov. Richard Snelling died.

"It's just not one of those things we allow," said Claudette Marinelli, director of operations in Vermont's Legislative Council's Office, which reviews travel vouchers.

Florida state law says legislators can bill for mileage, per diem or actual travel or lodging costs when traveling in the "official business of the state." But the statute does not define that term.

Legislators are regularly reimbursed for traveling to sessions in Tallahassee, for committee meetings when the Legislature is not in session and for out-of-town conferences.

The law also does not spell out a process for reviewing expenditures, beyond assigning responsibility to department heads, which in the Legislature are Thrasher and Senate President Toni Jennings, R-Orlando.

Jennings authorized reimbursement of senators' expenses for travel to the funeral. She and five other legislators flew from Orlando to Chiles' funeral on a state aircraft at a total cost of about $1,500. In addition, some sought per diem expenses.

Thrasher did not seek reimbursement for himself. His spokeswoman, Katie Baur, said that was an "office oversight" rather than a statement of principle.

The lawmaker whose trip cost the most was Rep. Curt Levine, D-Boca Raton, who billed the state for three days' travel, two nights' lodging, meals and incidentals totaling $918.38.

Sen. Mandy Dawson, D-Fort Lauderdale, was repaid for expenses that included three days' travel, an airline ticket and a rental car, for which she recouped $631.84.

State Sen. Jim Horne, R-Orange Park, and Sen. George Kirkpatrick, R-Gainesville, attended but did not seek reimbursement.

Funeral pay

Legislators reimbursed for expenses for attending Gov. Lawton Chiles' funeral included these from around the Tampa Bay area:

Senators

Lisa Carlton, R-Sarasota, $271; John Grant, R-Tampa, $376; Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, $238.09; John Laurent, R-Bartow, $384.08; Tom Lee, R-Brandon, $280; Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, $215.50.

Representatives

Shirley Brown, D-Sarasota, $352.74; Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, $435.90; Chris Hart, R-Tampa, $207; Les Miller Jr., D-Tampa, $372; John Morroni, R-Clearwater, $200.70.

_ Florida Department of Management Services; Office of Legislative Services.

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