Traveling travesty

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board December 23, 2011 05:24 pm

Lean times, these past few years.

But not for everyone.

Oregon state government, for instance, in what seems to us a contradiction of its incessant claims of financial trouble, barely trimmed its spending in areas that could hardly be described as essential.

Unless, of course, you consider it essential that the state pay for employees to attend meetings and conferences in places such as Salishan, Sunriver and, in one case, Gibraltar.

The credit for these troubling revelations goes to The Oregonian.

The Portland newspaper perused hundreds of state records in researching its recent story about travel expenses.

Turns out the state spent about $42 million for travel in 2009, $39 million in 2010, and $40 million in 2011.

Those figures include all travel costs — including trips within Oregon’s borders that employees can hardly avoid.

But here’s the thing: The state spent the same amount for out-of-state trips – $4.5 million — in 2010 and 2011.

So much for that recession that keeps getting in the news.

And lest anyone wonder whether the state simply couldn’t avoid incurring those bills, The Oregonian noted that some agencies have reacted responsibly to dwindling revenues.

The state Judicial Department, for instance, cut its travel spending from almost $1 million in 2009 to $650,000 in 2011.

Yet the Secretary of State’s office managed to dig up $10,500 earlier this year to send five managers to a three-day training session at Kah-Nee-Tah resort near Madras. The purpose: to learn self-awareness, conflict resolution and communication skills.

Speaking of which, the Department of Transportation could stand to bone up on its skills.

In explaining ODOT’s spending $228,000 at Salishan, a resort near Lincoln City, in the past two years, department spokesman Patrick Cooney told The Oregonian that Salishan “is as entitled to state business as any other venue. The coast is an economically distressed region.”

Well, if propping up the tourism industry is the state’s goal, we’d suggest ODOT just send Salishan a check and keep the employees working at their regular jobs.

And that, ultimately, is the issue here.

State officials should be striving to ensure that as many dollars as possible pay for employees to do the work that benefits Oregonians.

Obviously the state can’t eliminate travel costs. Oregon is a big state, after all, and many of the citizens who depend on state services live in remote places.

But it’s simply not plausible to argue that the $10,500 the Secretary of State’s office doled out conferred any measurable benefit to Oregonians. Surely those employees already knew how to communicate and to resolve conflicts, or they wouldn’t be qualified to work as managers.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of this is that just last week Gov. John Kitzhaber ordered a hiring freeze and urged agency leaders to cut back on travel.

We can’t blame Kitzhaber for 2009 and 2010 — he didn’t replace Ted Kulongoski until January of 2011.

But there’s no legitimate excuse for the state waiting this long to recognize — or at least to publicly admit — that training workshops and meetings should never supersede the core functions of government.