It was disappointing to read the state auditor’s findings about the Nebraska tourism agency’s cavalier treatment of taxpayer dollars.
Nebraska tourism is a serious and growing business. Folks coast to coast yearn for wild places, new experiences and friendly destinations that surprise. Visitors and Nebraskans traveling within the state contribute more than $650 million to our economy annually.
The Legislature recognizes this. Lawmakers stepped forward in recent years to fund tourism promotion in Nebraska at a more serious level. And they voted to make the Nebraska Tourism Commission an independent agency.
But there is no excuse for allowing an advertising contract to go $4.4 million over budget or some of the other questionable uses of state dollars and accounting practices the auditors cited.
As The World-Herald’s Paul Hammel detailed Sunday, the agency also spent $293,000 more than the state received in lodging taxes, the agency’s primary funding source. It overspent by $84,000 what it made on a 2015 tourism conference. It spent $18,000 to help one employee move to Kearney from Sidney, Nebraska. It paid for alcohol and cigarettes. A state contractor hired the agency director’s daughter for a tourism-related photo shoot. And the state questionably reimbursed the director’s family for expenses from the photo shoot.
State tourism’s executive director, Kathy McKillip, offered a number of excuses, including that the new agency lacked firm policies. But McKillip has led Nebraska’s tourism efforts since 2011, and she worked under the old system that apparently had more guidance, as well as the new. She oversees a tourism office with 11 employees and a budget of $6 million.
She told The World-Herald late last week that, “where there are weaknesses, we need to learn from them ... and move forward.”
The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee was right to voice concerns about oversight and governance at the Tourism Commission. The governor-appointed, nine-member commission needs to step in and provide the fiscal guidance McKillip says her department requires.
Because every now and then, it seems, a government agency can forget who’s footing the bills.
Taxpayers who are parted from those dollars deserve to know that their money is being spent on important public purposes, as efficiently as possible and that every dime is accounted for correctly.
Agency bosses are the taxpayers’ first line of defense when it comes to getting the job done while treating taxpayer funds like their own. Agency governing boards are there to make certain state rules are being followed.
Policies and procedures exist to keep agencies in check. “Clearly, there’s been quite a lack of oversight on that agency,” State Auditor Charlie Janssen said.
Tourism brings benefits to every part of the state. Nebraskans share a common interest in promoting this important industry effectively.
The tourism office was created to draw attention to Nebraska — but not this kind of attention.