The cancellations slashed meeting attendance by almost 20 percent from the expected total of about 500, said Steve Harned, the NWA executive director.
The meeting started Saturday, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cut Weather Service travel funding to the gathering by 65 percent Friday morning because the Department of Commerce — the parent agency of the Weather Service and NOAA — had not approved the travel request in time.
Last year, 130 Weather Service staff members attended the conference, according to the NWA. This year 30 attended, the Weather Service said.
In a statement Tuesday, the Commerce Department said, “In this constrained budget environment, all bureaus within the Department of Commerce, including NOAA, have cut back on travel expenditures. The Department of Commerce, in addition to NOAA, is committed to being a good steward of taxpayer dollars, including when it comes to participating in conferences which further Commerce’s mission to support American businesses, create jobs, strengthen the economy, and advance scientific innovation.”
Government conference spending has been under increased scrutiny after an investigation of an $823,000 training conference held in Las Vegas in October 2010 by the General Services Administration. That agency’s inspector general criticized the spending in a report that resulted in high-level resignations.
The initial Weather Service travel request for the NWA gathering was more than $200,000. Under Commerce regulations established in June, “group travel” exceeding $75,000 requires the approval of the department’s deputy undersecretary for operations and the department. But an internal e-mail sent at 10:38 a.m. Friday shows that the Weather Service had received no such approval. It had to cut travel funding to the meeting to $75,000 or less.
“Due to the uncertainty of [Commerce Department] approval, the [NOAA deputy assistant administrator] requests that we quickly trim the attendee list down to equal the maximum approval amount possible . . . which would be $75,000, as a contingency plan,” the e-mail said. “This means we are cutting our estimate [budget for travel] by 65%.”
Daniel Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization (NWSEO), criticized the last-minute cuts.
Commerce’s “failure to approve it or failure to approve it in a timely manner demonstrates a fundamental lack of knowledge of the importance of the NWA and this meeting and [its] direct impact on the ability of [Weather Service] forecasters to share with each other and the meteorological community scientific improvements in forecast and warnings, on which 300 million Americans depend daily,” Sobien said in a statement.