Several years ago, state Sen. Larry Grooms had an idea to put the travel expenses of lawmakers and state employees on the Internet for all to see.

You know -- transparency, how your tax dollars are spent. That sort of thing. They nearly laughed him out of the Senate.

Grooms, who is about as fiscally conservative as they come, had been disturbed to hear then-Senate President Pro Tem John Drummond tell senators they needed to hold their trips down to no more than two a year.

"I thought 'There are people taking two trips a year on the state?' " Grooms recalls.

These days, there are probably some folks who wish they had listened to the gentleman from Berkeley County. That's because the Greenville News' Tim Smith reported Tuesday that state government spent $2.4 million on various association memberships and conference fees in the past year.

The good news is, that number is down from the previous year, in which South Carolina shelled out $3.8 million for these trips.

The bad news is that we're losing teachers, prisons are broke, and the state is spending $2.4 million on clubs and conferences.

Beam 'em up

Grooms concedes that some travel is necessary. Sometimes it's a good idea for lawmakers to trade ideas with legislators from other states.

Once, when he was the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, Grooms and Ag. Dept. officials flew to New Jersey to convince the Eastern Produce Council that our peach crop for the year was going to be much better than California's.

It was up there and back in one day -- no Trump Plaza, no Boardwalk.

Now there are plenty of legitimate reasons for state employees to travel as well. Some have training they are required to do. Some of it is even required by law. And every now and then the state has to show the flag (not the Confederate one) at tourism conferences.

And then some of it is just ridiculous, especially in this economic climate. Rule of thumb: If you pack suntan lotion, it's probably a junket.

"It does get to be a bit excessive," Grooms says, noting that a teacher once told him they were rationing paper in her school, yet they were sending her on a "three-day vacation."

What the state needs to do is figure out what's necessary and what can be done by using this fancy new contraption called the Interweb. They even have Star-Trek-like teleconferencing now.

It's a lot cheaper than a plane ticket to, say, South America.

The time has come

This is a tough one for the state to get a handle on. After all, if it limits expenses to only things that are "essential," who decides what's essential? The idea is to use common sense, not to take off to Chicago to take in a one-hour speech and a three-hour Cubs game on the taxpayers' dime.

That's why Grooms is thinking about bringing back his idea for an online registry for travel expenses. Just add sunshine (and a politician's opposition research), and folks will soon figure out what's essential.

"I think it's pretty easy to pick out what's necessary versus unnecessary," he says.

And this time, his colleagues laugh at their own peril.