Gov. Nixon billing flights to other offices

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The cost of a flight to tour a battery plant: $793. A trip to the Missouri-Kansas basketball game: $1,295. A two-day fly-around to promote a health-care proposal: $3,740.

The cost to Gov. Jay Nixon's gubernatorial budget: $0.

Missouri's governor has been charging the cost of his airplane travel to other government agencies, taking a small bite out of their budgets at the same time his administration has been urging departments to hold down their own expenses because of slumping state tax revenue.

Nixon says it's proper to ascribe his travel costs to other offices, because he typically is highlighting issues handled by those departments. Often, officials from those agencies fly along.

"We think dividing that cost up appropriately among the various state agencies is a good way to do it," said Nixon, a Democrat.

But it isn't the typical way for Missouri governors to pay for their travel.

Gubernatorial flights traditionally have been charged to the governor's office budget, with the notable exception of Nixon's predecessor, Matt Blunt, who used campaign funds to pay for his first three years of official flights.

House Budget Committee chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, said he was surprised to learn Nixon was billing others for his travel. The state budget assumes those costs will be paid by the governor's office, not passed on to other agencies, Icet said.

"I think it's more than appropriate for the governor to travel by plane, but for transparency's sake, any trips he takes certainly ought to be charged to the appropriate accounting code within his own office," Icet said.

State flight records obtained by The Associated Press show Nixon has flown on about 50 days during his first four-and-a-half months in office, which amounts to an aircraft trip at least once every three days.

That's behind Gov. Bob Holden's jet-setting average of a flight almost every two days during his first half year in office in 2001. But Nixon's flights already have equaled or surpassed those taken by Govs. Mel Carnahan and John Ashcroft during their initial half-years in office in 1993 and 1985, respectively.

Because Blunt chartered private planes, there are no state flight records to compare his travel during his first six months in office. Blunt flew on state planes 48 times in his final year in office, after he announced he wasn't seeking re-election.

Flight records show Nixon's air travel has cost more than $60,000 so far. But that underestimates the full cost.

The governor normally travels on a plane operated by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. But while that plane was undergoing repairs in April and May, Nixon flew on aircraft operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Conservation Department Chief Pilot Chet Hartley said the agency only charged for its direct costs, such as fuel, not its total costs which include such things as pilot salaries and hangar expenses.

Also excluded from the flight record costs are three trips Nixon took on National Guard helicopters to survey storm damage. The guard said those cost $56,233 but were covered by the federal government because they were counted toward the crews' standard flight time.

According to flight records, the governor's office actually paid for Nixon's flights during his first three weeks in office, at a cost of about $9,000. Nixon began charging his flights to other departments in February.

Nixon also has shifted a greater part of the cost of his staff to other agencies than previous governors.

Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti has explained previously that some of Nixon's staff are receiving salaries through other offices because Blunt spent a considerable amount of the governor's office budget on legal fees. Blunt was defending himself from an investigation initiated by then-Attorney General Nixon into the e-mail practices of Blunt's office.

Cardetti said the decision to charge other agencies for Nixon's flights was a permanent policy choice, not a result of any budgetary shortfalls in the governor's office.

But Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Lloyd Smith said Nixon has shown a pattern of passing the buck for office costs.

"He'd rather do it a way that's a little more convoluted with less transparency than actually saying, `Give me a larger budget, because part of my budget is going to be for higher salaries for personnel, or more personnel, or for flying,"' Smith said.

To the contrary, Nixon said charging other offices for his travel that relates to their duties "is the most transparent and open way to do it."

"I fly when I think it's an efficient and effective use of my time, whether it's on a natural disaster or to make myself available for meetings or to make myself available to recruit businesses to come to the state of Missouri," Nixon said.

According to an AP analysis, the Department of Economic Development has borne the greatest share of Nixon's flight costs, about $14,000 so far.

Nixon's May 8 trip to a Lee's Summit battery plant -- at which he urged lawmakers to expand business tax incentives -- was among roughly 20 trips charged fully or partly to the Department of Economic Development.

Department spokesman John Fougere, who previously worked for Nixon in the attorney general's office, said the department has a travel budget of nearly $2.5 million for its 15 sections. It's on pace to spend about half that during the 2009 fiscal year that ends June 30, Fougere said, so Nixon's added flight costs have not prohibited anyone else from traveling.

The Department of Social Services, which administers Missouri's Medicaid program, has been charged more than $8,800 for Nixon's flights. That includes Nixon's five-city health care tour March 9-10, on which the governor was accompanied by the Social Services director.

But some agencies have helped pay for gubernatorial flights that have no direct connection to their areas of oversight.

For example, 11 state offices -- ranging from the departments of Agriculture to Revenue -- split a $1,295 bill so that Nixon and first lady Georganne Nixon could fly to the Missouri-Kansas basketball game on March 1. Their host, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, ended up skipping the game because of her impending nomination as U.S. health secretary.

Nixon said he hadn't seen that bill, but he defended the expense.

"That was a traditional game for Missouri; (Kansas Gov. Kathleen) Sebelius wanted me to be there. I thought it was important, Nixon said.

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