Local Government Travel and Entertainment Expenses Come Under Greater Scrutiny with New Law
Over the past few years there has been no shortage of FOIA requests and media attention on how school districts and other units of local government spend or reimburse spending on conferences, dining, and travel. Last week Governor Rauner signed into law the Local Government Travel Expense Control Act (Public Act 99-604). The Act is effective January 1, 2017. It establishes protocols and requirements on how such spending is to be approved and reimbursed. Additionally, the Act specifically prohibits reimbursement for entertainment expenses.
The Act applies to non-home rule units of local government which includes, among other entities, school districts, community colleges, park districts, and some municipalities, referred to as ‘local public agencies’ in the Act. With respect to travel expenses, the Act requires that local public agencies create a policy, either by ordinance or resolution, concerning reimbursement that specifies:
- the types of official business for which travel, meals, and lodging are allowed,
- the maximum allowable reimbursement for such expenses (which may be exceeded due to emergency or extraordinary circumstances), and
- a standardized form for submitting such expenses along with the minimum documentation required for reimbursement. The standardized form for expense reimbursement must include, at a minimum, the following information:
- an estimate of the cost of travel, meals, or lodging if the expenses have not yet been incurred or a receipt for such expenses if they have already been incurred,
- the name and job title or office of the person who is requesting or has incurred the travel, meal or lodging expense, and
- the dates and nature of the official business in which such expenses have been or will be incurred.
The policy establishing this regulatory framework for reimbursement of travel, meal, or lodging expenses must be in place by June 30, 2017 or the public entity will not be able to approve or pay any travel, meal, or lodging expense. However, as a practical matter it will need to be in place no later than March 2, 2017, which is the date by which local public entities must establish a protocol for approval of expenses that exceed the maximum allowed by policy. For expenses exceeding policy limits, the reimbursement must be approved by a roll call vote at an open meeting of the local public entity. The Act is silent on recommended or maximum allowable amounts a local public agency will reimburse. Without guidance from the new legislation, each public body will need to make an independent determination as to what constitutes reasonable amounts. Reviewing past reimbursements or the reasonable reimbursements related to past conferences is likely the best starting point. Districts can also look to state guidance issued by the Illinois Travel Control Board and the Illinois Central Management Services for reimbursement amounts available here, and guidance from the federal government available here. Districts should keep in mind that travel expenses and overnight expenses can fluctuate year to year.
Finally, the Act specifically prohibits reimbursement for ‘entertainment expenses’, which include, but are not limited to: shows, amusements, theaters, circuses, sporting events, or any other public or private entertainment or amusement unless ancillary to the purpose of the program or event. This prohibition begins January 1, 2017. What the General Assembly means by ‘ancillary to the purpose of the program or event’ is unclear and will have to be interpreted through administrative regulations, Attorney General opinions, and/or case law.