REQUESTED BY: The Honorable Elroy M. Hefner, State Senator, District #19.
QUESTION: May a state senator use campaign funds to pay the expenses of meals, lodging, and travel associated with an overseas study mission?
Senator Elroy Hefner has been invited to join approximately thirty other Nebraskans involved in agriculture and agribusiness on a People to People study mission to the Soviet Union in June, 1991. This study mission is sponsored by the American People Ambassador's Program and will be led by Dr. Irvin Omtvedt, Vice Chancellor of the University of Nebraska Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The study mission will include meetings with private and public sector representatives, farm visits, collective farming operations visits, a tour of a tractor factory, visits with managers, distributors, and export representatives, and a meeting with the head of the Soviet Food and Agricultural Department. The group will also be observing recent techniques, advances, and failures in the Soviet agricultural ventures. According to Senator Hefner, the trip is intricately related to his duties as a state senator since he represents one of the most rural, agricultural dominated and agriculture dependent legislative districts in the State of Nebraska. He is a member of the Legislature's Agricultural Committee and has served on it for over six years. Senator Hefner cites Nebraska's inter-dependence on the world's agricultural economy, specifically the Soviet market which he states is one of Nebraska's biggest competitors and an important consumer. Senator Hefner expresses the belief that he will gain a substantial amount of information and experience which will aid him in his duties as a State Senator representing the 19th Legislative District.
Senator Hefner inquires as to whether he may use funds from his campaign committee to offset all or part of the travel and arrangement costs of the trip. He states his wife will be traveling with him, but that her expenses will be paid from personal funds.
Section 49-1446.01 of the Nebraska Political Accountability and Disclosure Act provides:
Any committee, including a political party committee, may: (1) make expenditures or transfer funds after any election for: . . . (h) meals, lodging, and travel by an officeholder and his or her staff when involved in activities related to the duties of his or her public office . . .
The foregoing provisions permitting the use of campaign funds for officeholder related travel was incorporated into the Nebraska Political Accountability and Disclosure Act as the result of LB1174 which was passed by the Legislature in 1988. In his statement of intent to the committee on Government, Military and Veteran Affairs on January 29, 1988, Senator David Landis, the sponsor of LB1174 said:
It is the case that when we run for office another time, we run basically on records; how effective we were, how knowledgeable we were, how well we perform our job . . .. The theory of this amendment says, an officeholder has some campaign funds, he decides to go to a continuing legal education seminar on an important issue that will be coming up in the Legislature, he is perhaps going to introduce a bill on that subject, or she is going to a regional conference in Kansas City on a high technology type of issue, economic development or whatever, the Legislature does not have any money to send them, if they have got campaign funds, they can use them. Why? It makes them a better officeholder.
The sense of Senator Landis' statement of intent seems to be that campaign funds may be used by an officeholder for travel which is calculated to make the officeholder more effective, more knowledgeable, or better able to perform his or her duties. Clearly there is a connection between an overseas study mission focusing on Soviet agriculture and the duties of a state senator serving on the Agriculture Committee and representing an agricultural district. Therefore, Section 49-1446.01(1)(h) authorizes the use of campaign funds from Senator Hefner's campaign committee in connection with the overseas mission.
A question naturally arises as to what meal, lodging and travel expenses may be paid from campaign funds for officeholders related trips. This is a question which eludes a precise response. However, we adopt the general rule that the reasonable and necessary expenses of meals, lodging and travel may be paid from campaign funds. Naturally, what is reasonable and necessary under one set of circumstances is not reasonable and necessary under another set of circumstances. For example, an expenditure of $250 per night for lodging in Des Moines is not likely to be considered reasonable. However, an expenditure of $250 per night for lodging in New York City might be. By way of further example, the expense of a side trip to a Vermont ski slope is not likely to be considered a necessary part of the cost to a conference held in New York City.
Senator Hefner indicates that his wife will be traveling with him but that her portion of the trip will be paid for from personal funds. We believe that Senator Hefner is correctly reading the provisions of Section 49-1446.01(1)(g) which limit the use of campaign funds for officeholder related travel expenses of the officeholder or his or her staff. Senator Vard Johnson, in discussing an amendment which was eventually incorporated into LB1174, stated:
It does not encompass travel for family members, incidentally. So if our spouses decide to attend, or our children, or what have you decide to attend, we have to pick up their costs out of personal funds, and I think that is proper. Floor debate, LB1174, 4-5-88, page 11547.
In summary, we believe that Senator Hefner has shown a sufficient connection between the duties of his public office and the People to People study mission to the Soviet Union to justify the use of his campaign funds pursuant to Section 49-1446.01(1)(g) to pay for meals, lodging, and travel expenses associated with the study mission.