How state senators save tax payer money on travel expenses - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Tracking senator spending

Political watchdog groups like Citizens Against Government Waste pay close attention to the money trail.  (Source: Wikimedia Commons) Political watchdog groups like Citizens Against Government Waste pay close attention to the money trail. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In today's world, everyone is on a budget. Even our elected officials are not exempt. The difference between your budget and that of our U.S. senators in Alabama, Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, is their spending habits are public record and are open for anyone to scrutinize.

To compare apples to apples, we looked at expenditures for half of the 2013 fiscal year for Shelby and Sessions, as well as our neighboring senators in Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia.

In Alabama, the perception may be worse than reality. When it comes to taxpayer dollars spent on personnel and office expenses, Senators Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions spend hundreds of thousands less than senators in surrounding states. And not just in 2013, year after year, Sessions and Shelby find a way to be frugal flyers.

For example, between April and September of 2013, Shelby spent the least. He spent less than $1-million to pay employees and travel from Washington, D.C. to Alabama and back. Senator Sessions spent $1.2-million in that same time period.

It may sound like a lot of money, but compare those figures to Senator Bob Corker, just to our north in Tennessee. He spent about $300,000 more in the same time period.

Sessions points the finger at our nation's capital. He said the inconsistencies are due to a lack of accountability.

"We really need to have leadership that says, ‘every department; every agency is going to protect every single taxpayer dollar,'" said Sessions. "We are going to get something worthwhile for that dollar we extract from you and we are going to honor the money you give us."

Political watchdog groups like Citizens Against Government Waste pay close attention to the money trail. Sessions and Shelby are considered "heroes" in the eyes of this group.

"We work hard to travel frugally," said Senator Sessions. "And I think a lot of our senators do. But overall I think our travel budgets are high."

Senator Sessions also thinks U.S. senators have too many people on the payroll, leading to bloated budgets.

Each senator has a different budget. It's determined by a formula that includes a state's total number of residents and its distance from Washington. Any money left over in the budget is given back to the secretary of the Senate. The leftover cash is used to pay off late bills, before returning to the treasury.

In 2012, Sessions spent far less than his $3-million plus budget. He handed at least 20 percent back. Senator Shelby spent about 60 percent of his more than $3-million budget and handed more than a million dollars back.

Senator Shelby was not available for an on-camera interview, but he provided a few statements regarding his budget and spending.

Q: For at least the last few years, you have spent less on office expenses/travel than the majority of U.S. Senators. How and why are you able to do that?

Sen. Shelby -- "I make a conscious effort to spend only what is necessary to best serve my constituents.  Taxpayers deserve to recapture every other cent.  I maintain a lean and efficient staff, focused on producing for the people of Alabama.  But I also couldn't serve my constituents well if I weren't frequently on the ground in Alabama listening to their concerns and being accountable to them for my record.  The money that I spend on travel is used to visit each of our 67 counties every year, and I will maintain that pace going forward."   

Q: In your opinion, what is 'wasteful spending,' and what type of decisions made by elected officials lead to it (wasteful spending)?

Sen. Shelby – "Taxpayer money is wasted when there's nothing to show for how it's spent.  The money that I spend out of my office budget is primarily used to fund my annual statewide travel in Alabama, and to pay my staff. I return the rest to taxpayers.  The money that I have secured for projects in Alabama has built world-class math, science, and engineering schools at universities in Huntsville, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Auburn, and Mobile; funded our global leadership in human spaceflight; and supported our national security and law enforcement priorities – to name a few.  I mainly focus my efforts on initiatives that will improve the conditions for job creation or strengthen our national security, and I make it a priority to be transparent and accountable for my stewardship of taxpayer money."

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