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Legislators must stop wasteful meeting expenses

Q: How do you know when a lawyer is lying?

A: His lips are moving.

While there are many really, really bad lawyer jokes out there, that could be the worst of them. Unfortunately, one member of the Louisiana bar appears to be living up to that stereotype as taxpayers get fleeced for some high living off the hog by the Louisiana State Law Institute, an appendage of the Legislature that has acted as the official law revision commission, law reform agency, and legal research agency of Louisiana since the 1930s.

I write “appears” stereotypical because it’s possible the guy in question, the longtime executive director of the organization William Crawford, simply may have horrendous research skills – although that seems highly doubtful given his considerable academic accomplishments (having been a law professor at Louisiana State University’s Paul M. Hebert School of Law for nearly half a century). That’s because he was asked by a Baton Rouge Advocate reporter about the Institute’s penchant for having meetings in New Orleans, even though it is headquartered at LSU, which have cost more than $500,000 over the past three years; specifically, why didn’t meetings of its council, which has over 100 members, occur where it is housed? About a third of its members live in the greater New Orleans area, while almost as many live in the Baton Rouge area.

His answer was that they got a great deal at the Vieux Carre’s Montelone Hotel, with rooms a bargain at roughly $300 (before tax) a night, and cheap valet parking running only $40 a day. Which means he either can’t accurately price a hotel room to save his life or is avoiding the truth on this issue, because significantly less expensive accommodations exist in Baton Rouge. As a matter of personal experience, when my wife served on the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council, which required not only her presence but mine and a nurse’s, the Council booked us two rooms at the Baton Rouge meeting hotel which ranged between $90-95 a night. As the LSLI will reimburse up to $300 for a night or two nights for $450, that still is more for a single person or couple than it is paying for an extra room for my wife’s medical needs. And we always got free parking.

It’s not like it’s impossible to find meeting space in Baton Rouge for over 100 people – although, typically, less than half of the council shows up at the meetings with about three-quarters of them come from outside the greater New Orleans area and, interestingly, the largest single contingent being from Baton Rouge itself – as in the aftermath of the hurricane disasters of 2005 for a few years they met on the LSU campus, which also has lodging and free parking. This choice also saved on the several hundred dollars now shelled out per meeting for space, and likely also cost less in terms of aggregate mileage expenses, given the more central statewide location of Baton Rouge compared to New Orleans.

Travel expenses only make up about a tenth of the LSLI budget, and legislators – among the council’s members (by virtue of committee chairmanships) are state Reps. Neil Abramson, Jeff Arnold, Nancy Landry, and Joe Lopinto, and state Sens. Dan Claitor, Bob Kostelka, J.P. Morrell, and Ben Nevers – haven’t seemed concerned about saving tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on these by making meeting on the LSU campus permanent, or at the very least reimburse only to the Baton Rouge hotel rate ($97 per night for this fiscal year). They should be, for all the whining some do about how higher education needs more money in this year’s budget, it couldn’t hurt to have that excess travel money not only go to higher education, but also to throw business LSU’s way with the amount retained paying it to house the meetings.

Of course, Crawford’s response set was constrained in that he acts as a mouthpiece for those who directly employ him, and undoubtedly council members from across the state (and the couple of out-of-state members) think the waters better in New Orleans than in Baton Rouge for their half-dozen or so trips a year (whether the council should meet that often and needs a minimum of 60 members by statute are other matters). But it would do well for legislators permitting this extravagance to remember who hires them, the people, and it’s the people’s money they’re spending, not the LSLI’s nor theirs.

Yes, the amount of money saved may not even amount to my annual professor’s salary, but even that chickenfeed total means something when this year higher education is scheduled to get around $200 million less than last year. In these times of fiscal stress, if legislators aren’t blowing hot air about their distress at cutting services, they would be saving everywhere they can, including by making the atmosphere surrounding LLI meetings less vacation-like and more business-like.

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