LINCOLN — Unlike several other small state agencies, the Nebraska Tourism Commission hasn’t — until required to lately — asked for help from the state’s authority on contracts and accounting, the Department of Administrative Services.
It wasn’t for lack of money.
The Tourism Commission left unspent between $260,000 and $355,000 a year in recent budgets, money that could have been used to contract with the Department of Administrative Services or another state agency for support services, or to hire people with expertise in contract compliance and spending oversight.
In the wake of an audit critical of the Tourism Commission and calls for the firing of State Tourism Director Kathy McKillip, questions are being raised about how spending at a $6-million-a-year state agency with 11 employees could have gotten so far out of whack.
A state senator and former state agency chief both said that contracting with DAS has helped dozens of state agencies and would have provided a layer of accountability that didn’t exist at the Tourism Commission.
“I think it’s abundantly clear from reading that audit that the lack of procedures, the lack of rules and regulations, and the lack of operational manuals ... were a fairly glaring omission,” said State Sen. Heath Mello.
Earlier this year, the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, which Mello leads, added a requirement to this year’s budget bill that requires the Tourism Commission to contract with DAS for financial oversight. “We did this out of concern for fiscal oversight, overspending in the agency,” the senator said.
Bo Botelho, chief operating officer with DAS, said the department provides purchasing and preliminary hiring services for all state agencies but will go a step further with the tourism agency, performing services such as payroll and human resources. DAS also will review bills and contracts, he said.
Former State Labor Commissioner Cathy Lang said contracting with DAS was helpful when she oversaw the transition of the property tax division of the Nebraska Department of Revenue into an independent agency, the Department of Property Assessment and Taxation, in 1999.
Lang said DAS was “a valuable resource” that allowed the new property tax agency to focus on its mission, while leaving the administrative chores of overseeing payroll, reimbursing expenses and overseeing contracts to someone else.
A four-member committee of the Tourism Commission has been ordered to probe how the agency’s finances could have gone so far awry, so much so that State Auditor Charlie Janssen said the agency “took advantage” of state taxpayers.
The audit prompted Gov. Pete Ricketts, former Gov. Dave Heineman and the state’s two major travel associations on Friday to call for the firing of McKillip, whose salary is $86,364 a year.
McKillip, who was at work Monday, declined to comment.
The committee is expected to meet soon, then the full Tourism Commission, possibly before the end of the month, is expected to decide on a course of action and McKillip’s job status.
Mello said he remains a supporter of keeping the tourism agency independent. It was moved out of the State Department of Economic Development in 2012, thus taking it outside the governor’s direct control, a step both Ricketts and Heineman have criticized.
On the other hand, Mello said the Legislature should consider changing the nine-member commission’s membership to include representatives of the Governor’s Office, the Legislature and the Department of Economic Development. That would give the commission a broader perspective, he said.
Right now, commissioners represent different aspects of the tourism industry, such as hotels and motels, local visitors bureaus and tourism coalitions. Many of those sectors receive grants from the Tourism Commission or benefit from grants that are given.