New travel restrictions for state lawmakers

House Speaker David Gowan (left) and current Arizona House Speaker J.D. Mesnard (right) Photos by Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

House Speaker David Gowan (left) and current Arizona House Speaker J.D. Mesnard (right) Photos by Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- House Speaker J.D. Mesnard is enacting new travel restrictions on members a year after his predecessor was forced to reimburse taxpayers for more than $12,000 in improper expenses.

The new policy unveiled Thursday limits when lawmakers can charge mileage to the state for trips to the Capitol and around their legislative districts. Mesnard said the rules, coupled with public disclosure, should prevent abuse.

Mesnard also has pretty much made the use of state "fleet vehicles'' off limits to House members, saying that should be reserved only for the most limited of circumstances.

The speaker said that when he took office in January he wanted to revisit all House policies. But he conceded that the question of legislative travel -- and who pays for it -- was a priority after news reports showed that David Gowan, his predecessor, was making questionable claims for reimbursement.

"Obviously, travel in the past, has been a point of controversy with some decisions that had been made previously,'' Mesnard said. "I think everybody knows what those are.''

Gowan is gone, having decided to make an unsuccessful bid to become the Republican nominee for Congress from CD 1. He never made it to the election, dropping out and instead endorsing Gary Kiehne.

As it turned out, Paul Babeu got the nomination, only to lose to Democrat Tom O'Halleran.

Now Gowan is trying to get back to the Capitol with a 2018 bid for state Senate from his old southeast Arizona legislative district.

In the meantime, however, the attorney general's office is investigating his use of state vehicles for travel that was not for legitimate state business. A spokeswoman for the agency said that probe is ongoing despite Gowan writing out a personal check in January 2016 after the Arizona Capitol Times published an article about the use of state fleet vehicles by him along with other top Republican lawmakers and their staff.

Stephanie Grisham, Gowan's publicist, said at the time that nearly $9,700 of what he paid was for reimbursements he claimed for mileage actually driven in a state vehicle. That amount, she said, also included overestimating distances on trips in his own car.

There also was $727 for use of state vehicles for personal business and $1,655 for days he had claimed he was working but was not. Grisham, now press aide to Melania Trump, said the problem was due to errors made by staffers in assuming Gowan had been driving his personal vehicle when he instead had a fleet vehicle.

The restrictions Mesnard instituted are designed to keep that from happening, at least in part by clamping down on the use of state cars and making reimbursement requests more transparent.

"A fleet vehicle is not to be used as a substitute for one's private vehicle or other means of transportation for commuting, or solely for the convenience of the traveler,'' the policy states. They also cannot be used because of the distance between a lawmaker's home and the Capitol.

The policy also requires Mesnard's permission before taking out a fleet vehicle and pretty much says that won't be granted to lawmakers traveling alone without another legislator or staffer.

Mesnard said lawmakers will get reimbursed for "official business.''

But he did push through legislation earlier this year that boosts the reimbursement rate for lawmakers -- both House and Senate -- to 53 1/2 cents a mile, nine cents more than is available to other state employees. Mesnard said that's based on how much legislators need to use their vehicles.

The speaker acknowledged that the policy itself does not spell out what is "official business.'' In his mind, Mesnard said, it is "not official campaigning or that is not personal.''

"So you're there in your capacity as a legislator,'' he said, like official meetings with constituents. But Mesnard said it's set up in a way to discourage cheating.

"It's got to be on your calendar, it's subject to public records request,'' he said.

"So, anything that essentially you are willing to air out before the world,'' Mesnard said. "And we're going to keep an eye on it.''

And Mesnard put something else in the policy: a cutoff date of June 1 on even-numbered years when lawmakers are either up for reelection or campaigning for some other office.

"Even if you are on official business, we're just not going to do the mileage reimbursement beyond that time because it's just too close to the election cycle,'' he said. "We're trying to strike a proper balance between perception as well as legitimate reimbursable mileage expenses for legislators.''

He said the issue is particularly important for lawmakers who represent rural areas where driving from one end of the district to another is often more than 100 miles.

Mesnard is maintaining existing policy that says when lawmakers want public funding for out-of-state trips they first have to get permission from him. He said that both protects the House budget and also ensures that no one lawmaker or one party gets to eat up all the available funds.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia


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