Oklahoma lawmakers rack up $1.3M travel bill (NewsOK)

By Rick Green

Oklahoma Senate and House members racked up more than $1.3 million in travel expenses in the 2015 fiscal year, much of it to cover mileage and lodging.  

 The average legislator got about $8,700 in expense money, plus a salary of $38,400. The amounts claimed for expenses varied widely, according to an analysis by The Oklahoman of figures provided by the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services.

Costs incurred by the Legislature have been a point of public concern as the House and Senate did not cut their budgets this year even as many state agencies faced reductions. State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones has even called for an initiative drive to eliminate one legislative chamber, reducing the number of lawmakers to cut down on expenses and redundancy and to increase transparency.

Every legislator is entitled to 57 cents a mile for one round trip a week to and from the Capitol when the Legislature is meeting.   

Those who live more than 50 miles from the Capitol also can claim a $160 per diem, or daily, payment for accommodations on days when the Legislature is meeting during its four-month session. 

Mileage and per diem during the February-to-May session comprise the bulk of the expenses, although some travel costs are authorized when the Legislature is not in session. There are also some out-of-state travel payments. 

Some lawmakers who live in Oklahoma City do not claim much. Others who live outside the metro area typically receive much more.

For example, Rep. Casey Murdock, R-Felt, claimed $17,747 for the year, tops in the House. Felt is in the far west end of the Oklahoma Panhandle, about 350 miles from Oklahoma City.

Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City, had a total of $40 in travel expenses, while Sen. Joseph Silk, R-Broken Bow, led the Senate with $16,295.

The House, which has 101 members, had $870,782 in travel expenses, while the Senate, with 48 members, had a total of $440,330.

“The vast majority of this figure is for mileage and per diem that senators are entitled to by statute,” said Matt Glanville, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa.

He said that when Bingman became Senate president in 2011, he placed a prohibition on out-of-state travel. It was lifted in 2013 in favor of a $1,750 yearly limit for staff and a $1,500 cap for senators.

Those who want to claim out-of-state travel expense must put in a request to Bingman.

“The Pro Tem approves reasonable requests that have legislative and educational value,” Glanville said.

“The limits on travel and travel reimbursement put in place by Sen. Bingman have reduced the amount the Senate spends in this category. In fiscal year 2008, for instance, the Senate spent $234,597 on out-of-state travel. In fiscal year 2015, however, the Senate spent just $24,348 on out-of-state travel.”

The House has a $500 maximum yearly allowance for out-of-state travel, said Joe Griffin, a spokesman for House speaker Jeffrey Hickman, R-Fairview. 

“At the beginning of each session, the House votes on office operational expenditures for the members,” Griffin said. “This session, the House voted to significantly reduce office supply and postage budgets this year in exchange for giving members the ability to apply for a maximum of $500 of out-of-state travel reimbursement for the entire year. Not all members will utilize this reimbursement.”

Even though the cost of House and Senate salaries and expenses represent a fraction of the state’s overall budget, they can become a point of contention, especially since legislators cut most agency budgets this year but didn’t reduce their own spending, said David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

Oklahoma legislative salaries are comparatively high.

Arizona legislators get an annual base salary of $24,000 and lawmakers in Colorado get $30,000.

Not all states provide a per diem allowance. Others do so at levels lower than Oklahoma’s $160 per day.

“It seems hard to justify our legislators setting their per diem rates based on national standards when our teachers, corrections officers and other public employees are paid so miserably,” Blatt said.

“There’s not a huge amount of money at stake here but it’s hard for legislators to make the case that we’re all in this together when they protect their own budgets and reimbursement rates while slashing others.”

State Auditor and Inspector Jones has a suggestion for reducing the cost of legislative operations. He has been backing the idea of holding a statewide vote on a proposal to eliminate one of the Legislature’s two chambers.

All areas of the state would still be represented, but there would be fewer legislators at the Capitol.

Nebraska has such a system, called a unicameral legislature.

He figures this could save the state $15 million in government costs, while increasing transparency and reducing duplication of effort.

“It’s a good idea, if you believe in smaller, more efficient government, which I do,” he said.

“I have been discussing the idea with dozens of groups across Oklahoma and am getting positive response. If that pattern continues, circulating petitions next year to get it on the 2016 ballot is likely.” 

In the 2016 fiscal year budget, which began July 1, included more than $7 billion in state spending, the appropriation for the House was unchanged at $16.66 million and the Senate’s was unchanged at $12.44 million.



Carly Putnam joined OK Policy in 2013. As Policy Director, she supervises policy research and strategy. She previously worked as an OK Policy intern, and she was OK Policy's health care policy analyst through July 2020. She graduated from the University of Tulsa in 2013. As a student, she was a participant in the National Education for Women (N.E.W.) Leadership Institute and interned with Planned Parenthood. Carly is a graduate of the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits Nonprofit Management Certification; the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council’s Partners in Policymaking; The Mine, a social entrepreneurship fellowship in Tulsa; and Leadership Tulsa Class 62. She currently serves on the boards of Restore Hope Ministries and The Arc of Oklahoma. In her free time, she enjoys reading, cooking, and doing battle with her hundred year-old house.

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