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Legislative budget groups analyze travel costs of state agencies

JACKSON, MISS— The Mississippi Legislative Budget groups analyzed travel expenses for the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT), The Mississippi Department of Health (MSDH), The Mississippi Department of Human Services (DHS), The Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services (CPS) at the State Capitol. 

These meetings were held this week, over the course of two days, for the purpose of evaluating where money could be saved ahead of the next legislative session.

“We spent over $60 million on travel last year,” said Lt. Governor Tate Reeves. “If we could save just 10 percent, that’s $6 million, that could go to other priorities.”

For the most part, state agencies’ travel budgets only make up about two percent of their overall appropriations for the year, with many of the agencies creating a “buffer” by asking for more than they believe they will use when they make their budget requests.

On top of travel making up such a small portion of the budget, most of the agencies have nearly all of their travel covered by federal dollars, as their jobs have federal requirements that force travel for additional training.

Even still, lawmakers evaluated the use of taxpayer dollars on travel for state employees. MDOT was heavily evaluated because of the high number of employees that traveled last year. 271 employees attended a conference or training of some sort, with many of those going to multiple training conferences.

“271 just seems like a high number,” said Speaker of the House Philip Gunn. “I’m trying to figure out why they have to go out of state.”

MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath said that a good portion of the travel went toward pursuing certifications for engineers– classes that aren’t always offered in the Magnolia state.

One employee with MDOT took 18 trips last year, totaling $20,000 in expenses.

Speaker Gunn told McGrath that he found this puzzling, given the low number of trips she took compared to that of her employees.

“You only took four trips,” said Gunn. “And you’re the director. I’m just trying to wrap my mind around this.”

McGrath said that out-of-state travel is usually for federal requirements for certifications, therefore the feds pick up the tab for those trips. Questions from the panel arose about hosting online classes for certifications as opposed to traveling.

“At these conferences, we get feedback. We wouldn’t get that online,” said McGrath. “We get better ways of doing our work.. and getting a better product for our taxpayers.”

MSDH was also evaluated for their use of tax dollars for travel. State Health Officer Dr. Mary Currier said travel makes up a large portion of the job because of inspection services and administration over the State’s branch offices.

“If our funding for travel was cut in half,” said Dr. Currier. “I’m not sure what we’d do.”

As with many of the agencies, federal funds cover much of the travel for MSDH. While the agency spent approximately $5.6 million on travel, only $500,00 of that was out-of-state.  Last year, there were 440 trips taken by MSDH employees, but only 24 of those trips were paid for out of state funds.

CPS, a fairly new agency, amassed roughly $175,000 in out-of-state travel last year, but most of it was federally reimbursed,given that most of the trips were to place children into new homes in Tennessee.

While CPS utilized $7.2 million for travel last year, the agencypreviously estimated $7.5 million. Despite shooting below their estimated costs, they have requested $7.8 million for travel next year, as more staff are being added to the still young agency.

While federal funds do cover travel for CPS in most cases, the amount that is granted from the federal government depends on state allocation for the purposes of matching those appropriations..

DHS employees are on Mississippi roads constantly as part of their typical job duties. For example, administrators have to visit and oversee branch offices, and those expenses have to be reimbursed.

However, as many of DHS’s functions are federally mandated, they are also federally funded. Out of the $196,000 spent on travel last year, over $180,000 was federally funded.

DHS Executive Director John Davis said they keep travel costs low by evaluating the need for out-of-state conferences and how they’ll be funded.

“Unless the feds pick up the bill,” said Davis. “We don’t go.”

DHS has also abstained from owning fleet cars, and individuals are reimbursed for their travels.

The Mississippi Department of Mental Health’s travel habits were questioned by lawmakers, with the focus being turned to individuals within the department who have amassed massive amounts of travel time and expenses.

One employee, Charles Hughes, had travel expenses up to $11,000. As a state representative for the National Disability Institute, his travel was required, and most of it was funded by federal dollars.

Out of the $63,000 spent on travel last year by MDH, Director Diana Mikula said a minimal amount, roughly $1,000, was actually funded by the state.

Requests for travel are rarely denied, according to Dr. Mikula, because of the approval process.

“I usually respond back with a few questions if I’m not sure if the travel is necessary,” said Dr. Mikula. “At that point, I don’t hear anything back. So technically, it wasn’t rejected because the official request was never put in.”

Training for MDH employees is conducted in-house by senior officials within the department.

MDH requested more than was used in the last fiscal year for the next legislative session for travel expenses. Dr. Mikula explained this was to create a buffer for unforeseen expenses.  If that buffer were to be cut, spending authority would be reduced, and instead of pulling already existing funds to cover an unexpected expense, the agency would have to appeal to the legislature for more funds.

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