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N.H. lawmakers' travel expenses eyed

Legislator says reimbursement perk is abused

CONCORD, N.H. -- State legislators are paid just $100 a year, but many take advantage of an attractive perk: reimbursement for travel to conferences in locations such as Puerto Rico, Las Vegas, Taiwan, and the Czech Republic.

The state usually limits its reimbursement to conference registration costs, according to reports filed by legislators. But lawmakers often can get the group holding the conference or a corporate sponsor to foot the bill for their airfare, hotel, and meals, and some extend their trips into personal vacations, according to a report by the Concord Monitor.

The conferences must be related to state business, and legislators say they find them valuable sources of ideas.

''They're really not junkets," said Representative Fran Wendelboe, Republican of New Hampton, who has made trips to Tucson, Santa Fe, and New Orleans in recent years. ''Sure, you fly in a plane, stay in a hotel, eat nice meals. But you're away from your family and your work. These [trips] are part of the job."

Representative John Gibson, Republican of Merrimack, thinks some lawmakers are abusing the privilege. He wants limits on how much each legislator can spend on travel.

''I think there are some people who go on junkets that would make members of Congress blush," Gibson said.

Two legislators who say they are the longest-serving husband-and-wife team in the Legislature have gone on more than 30 trips since 2000. Representatives George and Phyllis Katsakiores, Republicans of Derry, have visited Athens; Aspen, Colo.; Puerto Rico (twice); San Diego; several Florida cities; Seattle; and Washington (four times), among other destinations.

State money covered some of their expenses, including $1,976 for a trip to San Francisco. More often, the trips were paid for by corporate or conference sponsors. Sometimes, they said in reports, they did not know the value of trips paid for by conference sponsors.

Phyllis Katsakiores said the couple's trips were not extravagant and that they try not to stay longer than four nights per trip.

''How else do you exchange information and learn new things if you don't go to these things?" she said. ''There's conferences for everything."

The conferences may be educational, but they are also fun. At a Seattle meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures last August, attendees got a tour of the Space Needle, an IMAX theater, and the city planetarium.

The rules for out-of-state travel are set by the House speaker and Senate president. A spokeswoman for Senate President Ted Gatsas, Republican of Manchester, said he has allocated $500 for each senator annually. The total travel budget for the Senate is $23,700, while the House budget for travel is $60,000.

House rules say that, generally, reimbursements should not be higher than $1,000, but records show they often exceed the limit.

Representative Daniel Eaton, Democrat of Stoddard, was reimbursed $2,410 for attending the Seattle meeting, while Representative John DeJoie, Democrat of Concord, was reimbursed $1,936 and House majority leader Mike O'Neil, a Republican, got $1,500. Representative Sherman Packard, Republican of Londonderry, was reimbursed more than $5,000 in the past 18 months for trips to Salt Lake City, Savannah, Ga., Washington, and Seattle.

Ethics guidelines require legislators to file a travel report within 15 days of attending a conference, but reports are often late and enforcement is spotty.

For example, former Senate president Thomas R. Eaton, Republican of Keene, filed a report a year and a half late for a trip to Prague, sponsored by a group called Public Policy for Lieutenant Governors. The report does not show how much money Eaton was reimbursed. New Hampshire has no lieutenant governor.

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