Bill to end dishonest reimbursement practice advances
On paper, in the bland terms of the state Legislature, the proposal is House Bill 44.
It also could be known as the Ray Begaye Memorial Act to stop double-dipping legislators from draining the golden troughs at which they feed.
The bill by state Rep. Nate Gentry to prohibit double-dipping for travel expenses cleared the House Judiciary Committee on Monday.
It may seem obvious that legislators should be barred from taking multiple reimbursements for the same business trip, but the state attorney general's staff said doing so was not a crime.
According to the prosecutor who did not pursue the case, Begaye on five occasions received reimbursement for out-of-state trips from both New Mexico taxpayers and the National Conference of State Legislatures.
After details about one of the trips was uncovered by Gadi Schwartz of television station KOB, Begaye's political career was doomed. Republican Sharon Clahchischilliage defeated Democrat Begaye, of Shiprock, in the November election.
Immediately after the votes were counted, the staff of Attorney General Gary King, a Democrat, said Begaye did not break New Mexico law, based on its reading of the state Per Diem and Mileage Act.
But the attorney general went on to recommend that the Legislature establish an express policy limiting lawmakers to reimbursement from one entity only when they travel on official business.
Gentry, right, R-Albuquerque, said New Mexico already has a criminal statute against billing the state for a trip that was paid for by somebody else. He said it is the law against submitting a false public voucher, a fourth-degree felony.
Gentry’s HB 44 does not attempt to create a new or different criminal penalty. Rather, it outlines a policy: “A legislator shall not be reimbursed for travel, parking or other actual costs that are or will be reimbursed by any other entity.”
Yes, the bill states the obvious.But it had to be introduced, given that the attorney general declined to prosecute Begaye under the existing criminal law against deception on travel vouchers.
If there was any justice in Begaye's case, it was that his 14-year career in the Legislature ended because he sought and received two reimbursements for one trip.
Now other lawmakers have to clean up the mess that Begaye left behind.