By Grant Bosse

December 23, 2011

As originally published in the Concord Monitor

Economic downturns and budget deficits are not good things.  But like most things in life, we can always look on the bright side.  One of the fringe benefits of tough times is that public officials spend our money a little more carefully.  With some prudence, we actually preserve some of these efficiencies for when the economy rebounds and revenues begin to roll in.

Such is the case with New Hampshire motor vehicle fleet.  Last year, the Legislature passed SB 402, which among other provisions required state agencies to track and report the Non-Business Use of state cars and trucks under 10,000 pounds.  Any vehicle driven more than 15% of the time by employees off the clock would automatically be returned to the state pool, unless a committee of top officials granted a waiver allowing the continued use of the car.

The first such report was presented to the Legislative Fiscal Committee earlier this month, and we’ve published a “Fleet Week” of stories digging into the data at New Hampshire Watchdog.

Rep. Ken Weyler (R-Kingston) has been chasing the Great White Minivan of fleet management for years.  Ironically, he was bounced in the Democratic wave of 2008, and wasn’t around when SB 402 passed.  But he came back in the Republican wave of 2010, and was chairing the Fiscal Committee when Department of Administrative Services Commissioner Linda Hodgdon presented the findings.

It turns out that state employees drove state cars more than 1.5 million miles for Non-Business Use last year, and some of those miles may actually end up saving us money. DAS estimates that the cost of operating a vehicle averages $.33 per mile, so New Hampshire taxpayers spent just under a half-million dollars last year paying for employees to drive cars when they were off-duty.

Most of those miles were from mid-level state employees, largely in the Department of Transportation, taking specialized state cars from their homes to their job sites.  DOT officials argue that it’s cheaper for a project foreman or bridge inspector to drive a state car directly to work than pick up the car, punch in, and get paid to drive to the site.  Taxpayers end up footing some of the bill for an employee’s commute, but end up saving money by keeping those workers off the clock until they actually get to work.

But some other high profile examples are much more like the corporate perks we associate with government cars.  Several top officials lost the keys to the state taxpayer-funded rides after racking up too many non-business miles, including all three of the state’s Liquor Commissioners and the Executive Director at Fish and Game.  Department of Resources and Economic Development Director George Bald and HHS Commissioner Nick Toumpas kept their cars.  Bald also fought to keep the “company car” of Cannon Mountain GM John DeVivo, arguing the perk was part of DeVivo’s agreed compensation and that the heavily-logoed car would serve as a billboard for Cannon on his commute between the mountain and his home in Bethel, Maine.

Whether this non-business use of state vehicles is justified is up to lawmakers, and the folks that elect them.  But there is a clear difference between asking a construction foreman to take home a truck full of equipment and letting a manager commute for free every day.

You and I are expected to make our way to the office on our own dime.  My boss Charlie Arlinghaus (Secret Service Code Name: Argyle) hasn’t tossed me the keys to a Chevy Malibu so I can drive to Concord every morning.  Occasionally, I’m also expected to drive to various state offices to cover meetings.  Here is the complete mileage reimbursement policy from page 1,237 of the Josiah Bartlett Center Employee Handbook:

“Suck it up.”

Actually, Charlie has encouraged me to submit mileage reimbursement forms.  He thinks he’ll find them amusing.

We’re not going to balance the budget by running a more efficient motor pool.  But our Fleet Week series has shown how a little bit of daylight can force public officials into making better decisions.  Let’s remember that in better budget years.

Grant Bosse is Lead Investigator for the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank based in Concord.