Records: State paid $2 million for lawmakers' travel

Assemb. Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead), the deputy speaker, billed

Assemb. Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead), the deputy speaker, billed the state $22,571 for reimbursements in 2012, the third-highest total among the more than 200 state legislators, according to records obtained through a Freedom of Information request. Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket) ranked No. 10 with $19,731. (Credit: James Escher)

ALBANY -- State legislators billed the state for more than $2 million in travel and expenses in 2012 -- with two Long Island lawmakers ranking in the top 10 spenders.

Assemb. Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead), the deputy speaker, billed the state $22,571 for reimbursements in 2012, the third-highest total among the more than 200 state legislators, according to records obtained through a Freedom of Information request. More than half of her travel expenses occurred during months the legislature wasn't in session in Albany, according to vouchers.

Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket) ranked No. 10 with $19,731.

State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) received $15,370 in reimbursements, the most of any Long Island senator and 18th overall among state lawmakers.

All told, lawmakers spent about $2.1 million in 2012 -- a decrease from recent years, in part because Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo didn't call a special session. In 2011, lawmakers spent more than $2.4 million, according to published reports. That year they extended the regular session by a week in June and returned for a special session in December.

The state pays lawmakers $165 per day in Albany for lodging and meals. Lawmakers who live within 35 miles of the State Capitol aren't reimbursed for travel to Albany. Travel (train tickets, airplane, etc.) is reimbursed as well. Additionally, lawmakers receive per diems for travel on official business around the state, such as attending commission hearings.

But lawmakers don't have to submit itemized receipts, which critics have said makes the system ripe for abuse. In 2011, Assemb. William Boyland Jr. reportedly filed for travel reimbursement to Albany on a day he was in a New York City court answering federal corruption charges. He was later acquitted.

More than $14,000 that Hooper received for travel and expenses was paid when the legislature wasn't in session. The legislature adjourned the third week of June. Hooper received roughly $1,100 in reimbursements in July, $2,900 in August, $2,400 in September, $5,100 in October and $2,800 in December, according to state records.

Hooper declined to answer questions about her travel charges and her nonsession expenses. Hooper has ranked in the top three of lawmakers colleting per diem and travel reimbursements each of the last three years, according to state records.

Watchdog groups said nonsession expenses submitted by lawmakers require more scrutiny.

"If the legislature isn't in session and no committee meetings are being held in Albany, then why should any legislator be charging for travel to Albany?" said Barbara Baroletti of the state chapter of the League of Women Voters. "Taxpayers' money is being used for this travel. It's supposed to go for a specific cause. So shouldn't we know why lawmakers are spending that kind of money for off-session travel?"

Russ Haven, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, added: "The good news for taxpayers is that per diems didn't go up in 2012. But big travel tabs for after session makes the system look more like politician carpe diem."

Englebright has ranked in the top 10 of the Assembly reimbursements each of the last three years. Of the $19,731 he collected in 2012, about $3,500 was for nonsession travel.

He attributed his high totals to taking over the Assembly Government Operations Committee in 2011; previously, he led the Parks and Tourism Committee.

"I have a much more diverse, much more demanding schedule," Englebright said. "Government Ops oversees about 30 different agencies. . . . My efforts to ramp up to meet the needs of my new assignment did involve more travel."

He noted that he also served on a governor's commission on government efficiency.

Flanagan pointed out that, as head of the Senate Education Committee, he served on Cuomo's commission on education reform, which held 11 meetings around New York in 2012.

"Also, at the request of my Senate colleagues, I spoke to different groups in their districts," Flanagan said, estimating he took "15 to 20 trips" total related to education issues last year, driving to all of them.Among the most frugal Long Islanders were Assemb. Thomas McKevitt (R-East Meadow), who received $7,501, and Assemb. Brian Curran (R-Lynbrook), who received $8,125.

The legislative leaders were in the middle of the pack when it comes to reimbursements. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) ranked No. 50 with $12,423. Then-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) ranked No. 105 with $10,026.

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