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Lawmakers should have seen light and called Tom Bodett for Seattle hotel space

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published September 22, 2015

It's great that legislators and legislative staff members attended a Seattle conference to improve state government. It's just too bad that some of them came back with hotel bills of $400 or $500 a night.

They should have seen the light and called Tom Bodett at Motel 6. He could have helped them get a clean, comfortable room with cable TV.

It seems to me there are three valuable lessons for all state employees to draw from the Seattle spree.

First, this is the time to economize. It's absurd to spend $400 a night on a hotel unless you are picking up the tab.

Second, assume that the housing option you choose on your next junket will end up in the newspaper. If it does, it might embarrass you or it might attract no attention, depending upon the choice you make.

Realize that the public will have reservations about the wisdom of spending $1,500 of state money so you can rest the legislative torso for three nights at the Grand Hyatt. After you check out, there will be reservations about any lectures you deliver on the need to stop wasting state money.

I'm not saying it was a waste to have a delegation attend the Seattle legislative summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures, Aug. 3-6.

We are counting on legislators to make important decisions, and our legislative process needs improvement. Topics at the summit included many of the pressing issues in Alaska, ranging from the outlook for oil prices to prison reform and early childhood education.

It's the hotel part of the travel bill that strikes me as extravagant and the decision to send 42 people, when we could have gotten by with maybe 20 legislators and staffers. They could have gone to everything and reported back what they learned to those who didn't make the travel team. That would have chopped tens of thousands of dollars off the $91,000 cost.

Last winter, legislative leaders called upon Gov. Bill Walker to stop traveling. They said to "limit agency travel to essential administrative duties or emergency response." That's good advice for everyone in state government. It's not clear that everyone has gotten the message, however, including the authors of the letter.

Otherwise legislators would be naming their own price on and finding it expedient to use Expedia before they made an emergency trip to Seattle in August.

Economy, in this case, starts by cutting expenses wherever you can. The Walker administration says it hopes to revamp the travel reimbursement process, which has grown more inefficient and cumbersome over the years.

State policies on travel say that if a hotel room is going to cost more than $300 a night to an executive branch employee, the commissioner of the department has to sign off in advance, and the request must include a justification that "the lodging is a government rate and cannot be acquired for less than $300 per night. Quotes from at least three moderately priced hotels in the same vicinity should be included with the justification."

The $300 waivers have rarely been issued for Seattle. Usually they are sought for trips to Boston, New York, Washington, San Francisco and during the summer, in Anchorage, said Leslie Ridle, deputy commissioner of the Department of Administration.

The high-ticket hotel rooms on this Seattle trip are an insignificant piece of the overall budget crisis, but the housing choices communicate a message about hypocrisy. In this era of collapsing oil prices, all those who travel on behalf of the state need to be more dollar conscious.

The third lesson to be drawn from this episode is that some legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, provided an example worthy of emulation, as a breakdown by the Legislative Affairs Agency demonstrates.

Reps. Lynn Gattis, Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins, Harriett Drummond, Charisse Millett, and Sen. Berta Gardner found alternative accommodations and did not charge the state for housing. Rep. Andy Josephson found an Airbnb for $105 a night, Rep. Paul Seaton found a room at the Holiday Inn for $151 a night and Rep. Liz Vazquez stayed for $148 a night at the Hyatt Olive 8.

Some legislators complained that they booked their rooms at the last minute, which is why some of the costs were so high. They should have looked harder for other options and booked earlier.

Josephson told me he lined up his Airbnb a week or two before the conference. He said the first place he checked out was on Capitol Hill, within walking distance of downtown, but the $150 nightly rate was "a bit much." The $105 room he chose was a 15-minute bus ride from the conference.

Finding a free place to stay or booking budget accommodations are in keeping with the current reality of state finances.

Had other legislators taken that approach and insisted that their staff members do the same, there would be fewer questions in my mind about the decision to send a big delegation to Seattle for professional development at a time when money has stopped falling from the sky.

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