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Federal travel rules tightened again in aftermath of Las Vegas conference

WASHINGTON – The White House has issued a new crackdown on travel for bureaucrats that includes more cuts in spending, limits on conferences and even recommending people double up on rental cars and taxicabs while on the road.

The directive comes in response to the gold-plated 2010 General Services Administration conference in the Las Vegas Valley that cost taxpayers $823,000, embarrassed the Obama administration and led to an agency shake-up.

It also comes on the heels of legislation advancing in Congress that would set even more stringent controls on federal agency conferences.

The reforms drew a mixed response from Nevadans. A travel industry official in Washington said there may be reason for resort cities such as Las Vegas to be wary of them.

President Barack Obama in November signed an order for agencies to cut travel budgets by 20 percent. The new guidance issued May 11 by the White House Office of Management and Budget tells department heads to trim another 10 percent.

It also:

■ Forbids any agency from holding a conference costing more than $500,000 unless its director issues a specific waiver. Deputy secretaries would be required to sign off on conferences costing more than $100,000.

■ Requires agencies each year to post details of conference spending, including descriptions of meetings that cost more than $100,000.

■ Calls for greater scrutiny of traveler per diems, more advance purchase of airline tickets to get better prices, and increasing "federal employee sharing of rental automobiles and taxis when appropriate."

Agencies also were directed to aggressively consolidate office space and dispose of property no longer needed, and to refrain from replacing agency vehicles until they are at least 3 years old or have been driven more than 60,000 miles.

Jeffrey Zients, OMB acting director, said the new policies will "produce hundreds of millions of additional savings" while showing the administration aggressively is acting to "cut wasteful and in­efficient spending."

The travel industry and members of Congress from travel destination states have closely watched how the administration and fellow lawmakers were going to react to the GSA’s Western Regions Conference that was held at the M Resort in Henderson in October 2010. Photos and videos from the event showed GSA workers joking about Obama and about spending taxpayer money freely on TVs and raises for themselves.

Nevada leaders in particular have been fearful of a backlash against Las Vegas where government conference-goers might be tempted to overspend or hide spending on its amenities.

While the White House guidelines on their face are destination neutral, an official with the travel industry’s lobbying arm said there are elements that might concern resort destinations.

For instance, conference reporting requirements could discourage travel planners from choosing glitzy locations, said Erik Hansen, director of domestic policy for the U.S. Travel Association.

"A federal agency may be hesitant to hold a conference in Las Vegas if required to post ‘Las Vegas’ to their website," Hansen said. "They may think out of context it may appear to be frivolous when in reality Las Vegas provides some of the best values in the country."

The association has proposed that conferences be reported instead to agency inspectors general who have the authority to dig into wrongdoing, as the GSA’s inspector general did for the M Resort meeting.

The House and Senate last month approved amendments that would go even further. Those would require agencies to publish quarterly reports on their conferences and explain why each was necessary and why a particular location was selected.

It’s not possible to tell how much the government spends on conferences and meetings in Las Vegas, said Vince Alberta public affairs vice president for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

He said the authority is examining the new Obama policy.

"I think there is a general understanding on the need for more transparency and ensuring the best use of federal tax dollars," Alberta said.

"However, we also want to make sure that guidelines are clear that conference locations should be determined on cost and value."

Nevada Democrats Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Shelley Berkley applauded the administration’s move.

"The president is to be commended for his swift action cracking down on the abusive, wasteful spending of the GSA," Berkley said.

Reid said the policy will "ensure that proper internal controls are in place at every federal agency."

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., viewed the policy as an attempt by the Obama administration to "inoculate itself" from further fallout stemming from the GSA scandal, his spokesman Stewart Bybee said.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.

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