Opinion

Cut back travel costs

Most businesses in the private sector, looking for ways to economize, have put limitations on travel expenses. We should expect no less from state government when taxpayers are picking up the tab.

The state's Legislative Audit Council reported this month that South Carolina's government is spending more money than it needs to on state employee travel, meals and lodging. The agency had made 14 recommendations following a review of state travel expenses in 2005, but only five of them have been put in place.

Travel costs represent only a tiny percentage of the overall state budget. Nonetheless, potential savings could be millions, not just thousands, of dollars.

That gets the attention of state Rep. Herb Kirsh, D-Clover. Kirsh, an infamous penny-pincher, believes the foreign travel expenses are particularly worrisome.

"I think that needs reining in," said Kirsh, who called for adopting more of the recommendations from the audit.

An annual report in November shows that just under $63 million was spent on state travel and meals in 2006. Colleges spent the most, covering travel for professors and coaches. Clemson University spent $12.7 million on travel and meals, and the University of South Carolina spent $10.8 million, which, together, amounts to more than a third of all the state's travel expenses. One USC professor alone spent $64,713.

Perhaps that money was spent on legitimate state business. But without checks and balances built into the system, state officials have no way of knowing for sure.

The Legislative Audit Council recommended, for example, that the state no longer pay for meals for workers when they are not staying out of town overnight. Those meals cost the state $324,000 in the 2006 fiscal year.

The state also hasn't limited lodging and meal reimbursements for foreign travel, spending $73,000 to send state employees abroad. The agency also recommends setting up a central state travel agency and contracting with airlines for favorable fares.

Travel is a necessary component to state business at many levels. State officials should not balk at paying expenses that relate to useful activities that further the interests of the state and its residents.

But the state government, like any business, has to have rules to prevent employees from taking advantage of loopholes and claiming travel, food and lodging expenses that do more to further their own recreation than the state's best interests.

Anyone who has ever had to hand in a travel voucher -- with the proper receipts -- knows the drill. No reason state employees shouldn't have to do the same.

IN SUMMARY

State has an obligation to put reasonable limits on travel expenses by state employees.

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