Brown orders state to collect its debts from workers

Published: Thursday, Apr. 21, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 3A

Travel expenses and cash advances for state employees have become the latest targets of Gov. Jerry Brown's push to save money and crack down on inefficiencies in state government.

The Democratic governor issued an executive order Wednesday directing state agencies and departments to step up their efforts to track down what his office estimates is millions of dollars worth of travel and salary advances that state employees have failed to repay.

"This situation reinforces the worst stereotype of ineffective and inefficient government," Brown said in a statement.

"I have ordered state agencies to immediately investigate the backlog of uncollected debts and find every penny owed to taxpayers."

State law allows cash advances to cover anticipated travel and training expenses and added compensation in certain circumstances.

In addition to fixing payroll errors or delays, the agencies can use the so-called "revolving funds" to issue salary advances to "alleviate serious, unforeseeable hardship."

The money must be repaid or approved by an expense claim within a specified time, but recent audits have found agencies are falling behind in collecting outstanding debts.

One 2009 audit conducted by state Controller John Chiang found that 11 departments had failed to recover or account for more than $13.3 million in advances.

The executive order directs agencies and departments to enforce the existing rules for processing travel expenses and other advance claims within 30 days.

If those steps are not taken, agencies and departments have been told to deduct the money owed from the employee's next paycheck.

A spokeswoman for one conservative group cautioned that solving the state's dire fiscal situation will take much larger steps.

"We do need greater transparency and accountability, so anytime that is done, that's important," said Americans for Prosperity California spokeswoman Meredith Turney. "But we've got to do way more than rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic."

Jacob Roper, a spokesman for the controller's office, said the audits found "a number of problems up and down the line" in collecting money owed or documentation for the travel expenses approved in advance. The 2009 audit found that nearly one-third of owed receipts – worth more than $4 million – were more than 2 months old. More than $543,000 in advances had still not been repaid after more than three years.

While existing rules allow managers to deduct outstanding advances from employee paychecks, Roper said the audits "did not find that they were doing that regularly."

Brown's order mirrors many of the recommendations made in the audits. While they are based in enforcing rules and policies already on the books, Brown spokesman Evan Westrup characterized the order as an added push to ensure compliance from state agencies.

"We didn't create this mess, but we're focused on getting to the bottom of it and ensuring that taxpayer dollars are collected as quickly as possible," he said.

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Read more articles by Torey Van Oot

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