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Resort cities fight for military conferences

Jun. 12, 2013 - 09:28AM   |  
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The House Armed Services Committee is asking military conference planners to stop discriminating against resort cities.

In its report accompanying the 2014 defense authorization bill, the committee praises the Defense Department for “efforts to increase scrutiny on travel, training, and conference spending” but doesn’t want locations placed off limits simply because they sound too appealing.

It does not name names, but Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, sponsored the report language, a sign Las Vegas and Honolulu are areas with concern.

Heck and fellow Nevadans Republican Mark Amodei and Democrats Steven Horsford and Dina Titus are cosponsors of HR 1880, the Protecting Resort Cities From Discrimination Act. The binding legislation would prohibit federal agencies from having policies that discourage or prohibit conferences or travel to any location that is “perceived to be a resort or vacation.”

Language in the House report is modeled after the bill, but is not binding.

“The committee is concerned that designated approval authorities may be subjectively restricting travel to specific geographic locations, and that these determinations are a product of perception rather than cost efficiencies or misalignment with training requirements, professional military education, or support to combatant commanders,” the report says.

The committee “encourages” the Defense Department to continue scrutinizing travel and conference costs but “recommends that the Department not prohibit travel to specific geographical locations without case-by-case consideration and to develop objective guidance and accounting measures for approving travel, training, and conference spending.”

Hanabusa said she understands the Defense Department’s push to cut excessive costs, but “we must take strategic value into account when deciding where to hold training and conferences.”

“Hawaii is home to all branches of the military and will play a key role in the United States’ rebalance to Asia-Pacific,” she said. It also is a prime locatioin for international relations, she said.

“Given our national security strategy, and with guidance from DoD often setting the tone of where our armed forces will operate, it is important that locations in line with our initiatives not be excluded from consideration for training and conferences because of optics.”

The National Guard Association of the United States has a conference in Honolulu planned for September but issued a statement Tuesday, unrelated to the House committee report, that it was not overly concerned about attendance. The conference is expected to draw current and former National Guard members from around the U.S., and the chief worry has been that sequestration cuts in travel budgets would result in cancellation or reduced participation.

Retired Army Maj. Gen Gus Hargett Jr., the association president, said the Honolulu event “won’t be impacted greatly by sequestration because we’re different than most military associations. We don’t rely on federal dollars to put on our event.”

The majority of people attending the conference will pay their own way, he said in a statement. “NGAUS members dig into their own pockets because they know the value to their careers, their units and to their profession of gathering with their peers nationwide to network, share information and interact with key leaders. And these are activities that just can’t be accomplished as well via video teleconference or over the Web.

“Defense officials are worried about appearances, about the fallout from press photographers shooting pictures of men and women in uniform at a conference in a place like Hawaii,” Hargett said. “We’ll be inviting the press to cover our conference. We want reporters to see what kind of conference can be staged without millions in federal taxpayer dollars.

“We believe we run our conference the right way. The new fiscal environment will force other military associations to do the same,” he said.

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