Out of Control Policy Blog

California Officials Abuse Expense Accounts, Travel in Style on Taxpayers' Dime

During a time when taxpayers are financially stretched thin and pinching pennies to get by, here is a story that should make you mad, especially if you live in California. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, state officials have racked up numerous unnecessary travel miles, billed for meals that they got for free from corporations, and stayed in expensive hotels, all at taxpayers' expense:

Over the last two years, as California has slashed services and scrambled to pay bills, top administration officials have made free use of government expense accounts with little oversight and, in some cases, no documentation, The Times has found.

Together, they have spent tens of thousands of dollars on state-funded trips between Sacramento and the areas where they live, justifying the travel as necessary for state business. Some built weekend trips around one short meeting, and some charged the state to attend events with no apparent connection to their jobs.

Often their expense reports were approved by subordinates. Many of the costs were incurred after the governor issued an executive order a year ago that state agencies avoid all nonessential travel due to California's fiscal emergency.

State law allows employees to charge taxpayers only for activities on behalf of the public, which do not include commuting or events related to their personal lives.

The article details several examples of state officials' abuse of travel reimbursement:

John Cruz, the appointments secretary for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, lives hundreds of miles from the state Capitol, where his staff scrutinizes candidates for California's many boards and commissions.

When Cruz works there, he goes by plane. He has charged taxpayers for his flights and for hotel bills of up to $382 a night on regular trips between his Orange County home and Sacramento, records show.

Carrie Lopez, director of the Department of Consumer Affairs, charged taxpayers to fly from Sacramento, where she works, to Los Angeles, where she lives, to attend a Justin Timberlake concert with her daughter. She listed the trip on her expense report as a meeting with the energy company that paid for the concert tickets. Lopez also billed the state for meals on days she received those meals for free from corporations, according to state records.

Rosario Marin, head of the State and Consumer Services Agency, blamed a miscommunication for her failure to repay $582 the state spent to fly her to Washington in July to speak at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, an appearance for which she received $1,000. She reimbursed the state for the airfare after The Times inquired about the trip last month.

Now, eliminating tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in expense account waste by some state officials would hardly make a dent the recent budget deficit pegged in the tens of billions of dollars. That does not mean, however, that the administration which once vowed to "blow up the boxes" to make government work better should not do everything in its power to get rid of such waste. Moreover, such waste is indicative of the way the state government is run—and has been run for many years. Unlike private businesses, who take a hit to their bottom lines when they waste money, or families, who must trim spending when times are tough, the government has little incentive to minimize costs. This culture of wasteful spending is pervasive. Then when policymakers have run up the state's credit card to unsustainable levels, they have the nerve to ask taxpayers to pony up billions of dollars in additional taxes and fees to make up the difference! Welcome to Taxifornia!

Adam Summers is Senior Policy Analyst


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