Get rid of procurement cards for elected officials

Governments that issue credit or debit cards to elected officials have to pay the bill. Then, they can take it up with the person holding the card if there are questions about the amount or reason for the spending.

Governments that reimburse elected officials for expenses they incurred on the job get to ask questions first, then decide if they're going to pay.

It's a key difference that's at the heart of our argument for doing away with government procurement cards, or p-cards, for Lake County Board members and other elected officials.

The cards are intended to make it easier for the board members to cover costs of working for Lake County. But using the cards is sometimes too easy, as Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor has shown.

Lawlor, a Vernon Hills Republican, repeatedly used his p-card for personal purchases since 2016 in violation of county policy. He charged nearly $1,500 in hotel bills and almost $500 in ride-hailing charges through Lyft. Lawlor admitted the expenses were not for county business and he reimbursed the county for the charges.

By way of explanation, Lawlor last year told county staff his Apple Pay account automatically defaulted to the county's card for purchases, and that he confused the county card with his own debit card that was the same color.

Lawlor's card has been canceled, but his situation makes a good argument for getting rid of the cards for everyone. Lake County Board members each have a $7,000 annual limit - $10,000 for the chairman - with few specifics about what can be charged. If all of the board's 21 members charge the limit, it comes to $150,000 a year.

We've made an argument against p-cards before, after a Lake County school board charged $800,000 to p-cards over two years. While Lake County promises to overhaul card procedures, it isn't enough. Private businesses might entrust some employees with cards. But elected officials aren't employees, are spending taxpayers' money and often have authority over the administrator charged with reconciling p-card accounts.

It adds up to too much money, with oversight that is too loose.

Instead of p-cards, government employees should seek reimbursement for work-related expenses, seek an advance for any expenses they can't cover up front, or have the county pay through its own line of credit for big expenses like flights or mailings to constituents.

That would put an end to spending limits, unscrutinized expenses and accidental personal use.

It's a change whose time has come to aid government transparency and better safeguard public funds.

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