Zurik: Wasted airfare costs Louisiana taxpayers plenty
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - "Am I going to get mad?" Rep. John Schroder (R-Covington) jokes as we begin the interview.
Government waste is less of a laughing matter.
"It's very frustrating," Schroder tells us. "We're wasting taxpayers' money. This has to stop."
After a few minutes of reviewing the records we uncovered, this lawmaker's frustration builds; he did get mad.
The state is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in unused airline tickets: Airfare purchased by state employees, public officials, who don't take their scheduled flights. In these cases, the state fails to apply credit to a future ticket and the flights expire.
"There's no way to retrieve it? It's just gone?"asks one woman who spoke with about the wasted airfare. "The airlines get it? That doesn't seem right."
In the last fiscal year, $107,417.80 of tickets went unused - the credits expired. In 2014, that waste cost $172,498.62. And 2013, $233,673.08 of your tax money paid for unused, expired tickets.
"It's just a waste of money," said a resident concerned about the tickets. "I mean, we work hard for our money and, you know, we need to use it wisely."
The state's inspector general warns that all that money is gone for good.
"And there's not a single thing you can do about it," said IG Stephen Street.
And there's more.
In 2010, the state inspector general alerted the Jindal administration about all of the unused tickets. After that, the problem only got worse.
"It can be very frustrating at times, because you put out the reports, you kind of clang the cymbals, you sound the alarm, and you really are just waiting for somebody to listen," Street told us. "And it eventually gets to the point where you say, gosh, what more do we have to do here, to see to it that this is properly handled?"
The problem has improved since that last report but, according to the inspector general, not enough.
"When you have monies that are dedicated to airline tickets and those tickets are allowed to expire, it is literally wasting the money, letting it evaporate into thin air," Street says. "And lord knows, in these kind of budget times that we've got in our state, we just can't afford to let that happen."
Such a practice of wasting perfectly good airfare would seldom occur in a home budget.
"I'm certainly not going to do that," Street said. "And I think most people who sit around the kitchen table trying to figure out how to pay bills wouldn't let that happen. And I think the duty that we, the stewards of the taxpayer money - we owe them no less."
Former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne heads the state's Division of Administration, which tracks the expired flights. Dardenne started the job last month. He says the issue is "certainly wasteful," but new rules should fix the problem.
The state's travel agency will now give a 90-day, 60-day, and 30-day notice to employees that they have a ticket expiring. That way, the employee can use the ticket or give the credit to someone else.
"Most flights are purchased so that they are transferable," Dardenne said. "To make sure, if they go unused, somebody else can make use of it… I can't say it's going to be a perfect system and it's going never happen."
The new rules have been in place for a few months, but it's unclear whether they're working. Dardenne says over the last 12 months, the state had 139-thousand dollars in unused and expired tickets. Doing the math, that means, from February through June 2015, the state had $60,000 of unused, expired tickets. Since then, from July through January of this year, the number's nearly $79,000.
"It's a management issue," Dardenne said. "Somebody has to do so at the local level because we've put it on the department head or the agency head, who oversees their employees, to make certain that if there's an unused ticket, it goes into a pool within the department or within the agency, so that they'll know it's available and hopefully can be transferred to somebody else who may be traveling during that time period."
Among the examples we uncovered:
- In 2014, State Rep. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb (D-Baton Rouge) purchased two tickets with state money: one for herself, the other for her husband. Both expired in April of last year.
- LSU head basketball coach Johnny Jones purchased four tickets on June 6, 2014, a total of $1,335. The unused tickets expired in June 2015.
- Former Attorney General Buddy Caldwell had a nearly $1,000 ticket expire in October 2014. The AG's office, now held by Jeff Landry, couldn't explain why the ticket was allowed to expire.
The list, filled with examples like these, could go on and on.
"This has to stop," Schroder insists. "In today's economy, in the state of affairs in Louisiana, we can't afford to waste a penny."
Schroder said during these tight times, everyone needs to pay more attention. Remember: Every penny lost to an unused flight is a penny that can't go to hiring more professors, fixing more roads and providing more and better healthcare.
"If I had a magic wand that I could… could fix something in government, it would be management and oversight," Schroder tells us. "It's just human nature not to treat a government dollar the same way as you would treat Lee Zurik's dollar… if you're not reaching into your pocket, taking it out, just like you would do your own home or your own business, government tends to just not treat it the same way."
The Division of Administration says many universities require travelers to purchase tickets, and don't reimburse employees if they don't take the flight. So we don't have a complete look at the number of wasted flights, or whether the new policy is working.
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