MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Taxpayers did not pick up the tab for any travel by Alabama legislators during the summer convention season, a change from recent years that reflects the state's ongoing budget troubles.
Some legislators still made trips to Charleston, W.Va., Chicago and other cities hosting conventions of legislative organizations, but lawmakers paid the cost or got financial help from groups putting on the events.
House Speaker Mike Hubbard, the new chairman of the Southern Legislative Conference, said he did not allow any legislator to travel out of state at taxpayer expense, but he did work to identify scholarships for members who wanted to attend a conference.
"As a result, some members have been able to gain valuable policy insights and build beneficial relationships with members throughout the country without spending taxpayer money," he said.
The speaker has to approve taxpayer-paid trips out of state for representatives, and the lieutenant governor has the same responsibility for senators. Traditionally, many of those trips are to attend conventions sponsored by legislative organizations. Hubbard and Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey told legislators before the summer convention season started that they wouldn't approve any trips because of the state's financial problems, which prompted a 10.6 percent cut in spending for non-education agencies.
Hubbard, R-Auburn, and a spokesman for Ivey, R-Montgomery, said they maintained that position and no legislator received approval.
Hubbard said his office worked to find scholarships from legislative organizations for members who expressed interest in attending conferences. They lined up help for Reps. Randy Davis, R-Daphne; Jamie Ison, R-Mobile; James Buskey, D-Mobile; Victor Gaston, R-Mobile; and Howard Sanderson, R-Huntsville, to attend the Southern Legislative Conference meeting in Charleston in July. The speaker's office said Rep. Arthur Payne, R-Birmingham, paid his own way.
The speaker's office helped Reps. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden; Laura Hall, D-Huntsville; April Weaver, R-Pelham; and Greg Wren, R-Montgomery, attend the National Conference of State Legislatures in Chicago in August.
Hubbard received help with his expenses at the Southern Legislature Conference, where he was elected chairman, but paid his own way to the National Speakers Association meeting in Indianapolis in July.
Without Alabama taxpayers paying travel costs, the number of Alabama legislators attending the conventions dropped dramatically. For instance, 33 legislators received approval to attend the NCSL meeting in Seattle in 2008.
NCSL spokeswoman Meagan Dorsch said the organization started stipends last year as states cut back or banned travel reimbursement. She said the stipends come from the NCSL's foundation, which receives donations from corporations, unions and business associations, but the $1,000 stipends that legislators received were not tied to any particular donor. She said less than 24 stipends were awarded nationwide, and an equal number went to Republicans and Democrats.
Weaver said her $1,000 stipend covered her hotel and airfare, and she paid for the remainder of her expenses. Weaver, a nurse who works in hospital administration and serves on the House Health Committee, said she went to participate in a focus group on arthritis.
"It was a tremendous learning experience," she said.
House Speaker Pro Tem Victor Gaston said he had not planned to go any summer conferences, but the speaker wanted some Mobile-area legislators to attend the Southern Legislative Conference meeting to promote Mobile, where next summer's conference will be held. He said the organization picked up the bill at the Embassy Suites, but he paid for his airline ticket.
"I would not have gone except for the conference coming to Mobile," the Republican said. "I'm not intending to spend a penny of taxpayer money this term on conferences."
Rep. Howard Sanderford, R-Huntsville, has served on SLC's executive committee for several years. He had planned to attend at his own expense until he received financial help at the last minute covering his hotel and driving expenses.
While some people might look at the summer trips as junkets, Sanderford said the SLC allows legislators to hear quality speakers address issues common to the 15 member states and allows lawmakers to share ideas. For him, that made it worth planning to spend his own money to attend.
"You really get an insight into things going on," he said.
Legislative leaders said no decision has been made about travel for 2013.