Democratic leader’s trip to White House rejected for reimbursement

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee state senators have been reimbursed for out-of-state travel for meetings from Florida to Alaska, and on topics ranging from school vouchers to the dangers of radical Islam. But GOP leaders say a Democrat’s trip to the White House doesn’t qualify.

After failing to get reimbursed for a White House meeting on curbing gun violence on Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris of Memphis is calling for changes to the state Legislature’s travel policies.

“Those on the other side of the aisle are frequently going to conferences on the state tab to talk about ways to expand access to guns,” Harris said. “This is part of being able to confront that, to engage in that debate and to be informed.”

Tuesday’s meeting is hosted by Vice President Joe Biden and includes governors, attorneys general, state lawmakers and local and tribal officials.

“I’m going to represent Tennessee to talk about issues that plague some of our communities,” said Harris, who is attending the meeting at his own cost. “Seems like official business and pretty legitimate to me.”

Harris said he also wasn’t approved on another request last year to attend a Washington conference of the Joint Center for Economic and Policy Studies on issues affecting communities of color.

Tennessee law says eligible travel includes “conferences, symposiums, workshops, assemblages, gatherings and other official meetings and endeavors concerning state business.” But reimbursement is at the discretion of Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey’s office.

Senate Clerk Russell Humphrey said the policy is to approve “meetings of well-known, well-established legislative organizations that focus on the policy work of the General Assembly.”

Humphrey said Harris’ requests did not include enough details about the events “to determine whether these were substantive policy conferences or political gatherings.”

Harris had forwarded the White House invitation that called the event an opportunity to “to engage with senior administration officials and to exchange information about the steps they are taking to address gun violence in their communities.”

Humphrey said he’d be willing to “take another look” at reimbursing the senator if he submits agendas and other information upon his return.

Harris said the Senate’s policies don’t make clear which events are considered political. For example, several members have traveled to conferences of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which is mostly made up Republicans and private businesses.

Harris had riled some state Republicans toward the end of this year’s legislative session by trying to strike a $100,000 grant from the upcoming state budget to subsidize an ALEC meeting in Tennessee. That effort was rejected by the GOP-controlled chamber.

Other previously approved travel has included:

— Speaker Ramsey attending Republican Lieutenant Governors Association conferences in Washington and Asheville, North Carolina.

— Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, attending a Phoenix meeting of the Friedman Foundation, which advocates for school voucher programs.

— Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, going to an Arlington, Virginia, meeting of Act for America, a group that warns of the Islamic terrorism and the dangers of electromagnetic pulse attacks.

It’s not only Republicans who have been cleared for out-of-state meetings. Democratic Sen. Reginald Tate of Memphis has been one of the most frequent travelers since 2014, attending at least 17 meetings in locations including Miami, New Orleans, San Francisco, Boston and Anchorage, Alaska.

Harris said the Senate rules should be clearer about what’s considered appropriate for travel reimbursements.

“We need to have uniform policy, because otherwise administrators can’t tell what the line is between governing and politics,” he said.