Vegas, Other Resort Cities Feel Sting of Federal Travel Cuts

Image: Vegas, Other Resort Cities Feel Sting of Federal Travel Cuts

Wednesday, 15 Jan 2014 10:14 PM

By Drew MacKenzie

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Las Vegas is feeling the repercussions of government travel cutbacks in the wake of a scandal involving General Services Administration staff three years ago.

Congress was informed Tuesday that federal agencies have reduced more than $3 billion in travel spending since a lavish $823,000 2010 conference was held by 300 GSA employees at the M Resort Spa Casino, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The report to Congress was based on an analysis by USA Today, which reported a month ago that the so-called Sin City, along with other resort towns like Orlando, Fl., and Honolulu, Hawaii, are practically being "abandoned" as destinations for government business meetings.

Politicians in Nevada are concerned about the travel cutbacks because the state is still struggling with high unemployment.

Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, as well as the state's lawmakers in the House, are sponsoring a bill in Congress that would prohibit regulations blacklisting government agencies from staging conferences or meetings in Las Vegas and other desirable cities.

"Federal agencies have a responsibility to maximize taxpayer dollars when conducting official meetings, and no place provides greater value and convenience for business travelers than Las Vegas," said Nevada Democratic Rep. Dina Titus.

Four years ago the government spent nearly $2.5 million for hotel rooms in Las Vegas, while in fiscal 2013 the figure was reportedly just $93,736, marking an 81 percent drop in hotel room reservations by federal employees. Government bureaucrats cut travel to Honolulu by 88 percent while federal hotel reservations were down 100 percent in Orlando.

The report also noted that the cost of federal spending for Washington, D.C., hotel rooms escalated from $2.7 million in 2010 to $57.5 million in 2013, which may mean that government agencies are holding meetings closer to home to avoid the appearance of out-of-control partying or spending.

During that 2010 conference at the M Resort, for example, the bill included $3,200 for a mind reader, $6,300 on commemorative coin sets, and $75,000 on a training exercise to build a bicycle. The shindig also included a $95-per-person dinner and reception, plus the cost of a clown and a comedian.

A photo also surfaced of the meeting's organizer raising a glass of champagne while soaking in a hot tub. Later, a video was publicly disclosed showing a GSA employee strumming a guitar and singing "Billionaire" while joking about the excessive cost of the party.

After the scandal exploded, GSA chief Martha Johnson resigned and two top aides were fired.

During a Senate committee hearing Tuesday about travel spending on conferences, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that he supported keeping a close watch on government spending.

But he added, "I am concerned about the informal blacklisting of specific conference locations based solely on their perception as resort destinations."

Beth Cobert, deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, also testified Tuesday before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee about the administration's policy on federal conferences in resort cities, the Review-Journal also reported.

"There is no guidance or regulation concerning conferences at resort locations," Cobert said. "The criteria on where to hold a conference should be based on the cost of the conference and the travel to the conference. Those are the guidelines we want agencies to use."

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