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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Proposed Legislation Cracks Down on Public Official Expense Reimbursement

Last week, the Illinois House passed House Bill 4379, creating the Local Government Travel Expense Control Act. The bill has since moved to the Illinois Senate for consideration. This proposed legislation seeks to prevent public officials from abusing expense reimbursement policies funded by tax dollars.  The bill would require non-home rule units of local government to adopt a regulation or ordinance regulating travel, meal and lodging expenses of officers and employees, including (1) the types of official business for which travel, meal and lodging expenses are allowable; (2) maximum allowable reimbursement for travel, meal and lodging expenses; and (3) a standardized form for submission of travel, meal, and lodging expenses. It would also prohibit reimbursing entertainment expenses and expenses that exceed a maximum allowable for expenses. 

As you may know, there are several watchdog groups actively watching expense reimbursement issues and all documentation they seek is readily available through the Freedom of Information Act. This legislation seeks to make the expense reimbursement process even more transparent.  If you have not done so recently, perhaps it is time to review and update your public body’s expense reimbursement policy. Because the Illinois Constitution prohibits the expenditure of public funds for personal purposes, it is important to have a strong expense reimbursement policy even in the absence of this new, proposed legislation. 

In drafting an expense policy, you might consider the following provisions, at a minimum:

1. A limitation that any funds reimbursed will only be for events that the public official or employee has attended in his/her official capacity and in which the official or employee is actively participating;

2.  A definition and limitation on what necessary and reasonable expenses might include: 
  • Travel (coach);
  • Lodging;
  • Standard cost of a basic room for the nights before, of, and immediately following the event;
  • No special charges to room;
  • Any hotel expense in excess of the conference rate will be paid with personal funds;
  • Meals and beverages, excluding a prohibition about paying for alcohol;
  • Prohibition of payment for entertainment costs (tickets to sporting events, golf outings, night clubs, etc.);
  • No reimbursement for expenses of family members or other guests.

There are certainly many flexible variables that can be customized for your public body, such as whether expenses are advanced or reimbursed, the time line within which expenses must be submitted, caps on meal expenditures, etc.  With the transparency light now shining on public expense reimbursement issues due to a few bad apples, it is certainly much better to have a policy in place before a problem occurs. Public officials who have had their conference expenditures published in the headlines can tell you that the publicity is generally not favorable.  

Post Authored by Keri-Lyn Krafthefer, Ancel Glink


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