Missouri governor flies while cutting others' travel
Friday, July 2, 2010
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- As part of his plan to shrink government, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon ordered state employees to travel less, and he sliced their per-mile payment.
How did Nixon break the news? By flying to Kansas City.
To drive home his point, Nixon repeated the announcement the next day by traveling to Columbia and St. Louis.
While cutting more than $1 billion from the budget, eliminating 2,500 state jobs and halving school busing aid, Nixon has racked up tens of thousands of miles on state airplanes -- and billed the costs to the agencies he is cutting.
In fact, a month after announcing travel cuts for state employees, Nixon increased his own airplane travel.
An Associated Press analysis of state flight records, obtained under the state Sunshine Law, shows Nixon flew on state aircraft about once every three days during the past year. And he has continued the practice, first reported by the AP one year ago, of paying for flights out of the diminished budgets of state agencies instead of his own office. That has allowed Nixon to spend more on governor's office staff and expenses.
Nixon, a Democrat, defends his frequent flights as essential to his job.
"I think a governor needs to be in all corners of the state to listen to the concerns of people," Nixon said. He added: "Some of the places a governor should be are very, very important, and they require modern modes of travel."
In contrast to the Missouri governor, the chief executives of some states have scaled back their taxpayer-funded flights.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist decreased his travel on state planes by nearly half from 2007 to 2009 as budget pressures mounted and his U.S. Senate campaign began. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter reduced the annual bill for his state airplane flights by one-third as the recession deepened.
To save money, Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas let foreign governments pay for some of his travels -- including two trips to Quebec, Canada, and a six-day visit to France last year in which Vermont was billed only for his hotel and phone calls.
After media reports about his airplane use, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said in April that he no longer would have a state plane flown from one Columbus airport to another to move it closer to his office and home. A Strickland spokeswoman said the governor changed course to save money.
Since taking office as Missouri governor in January 2009, Nixon flew on about 175 days through the end of May at a cost of more than $260,000 -- an amount equal to the annual salary and benefits of about five state employees. Nearly all those costs were charged to state agencies -- including more than $80,000 to the Department of Economic Development -- based on the topic of Nixon's travels.
In the context of a $23 billion state budget, the cost of Nixon's flights may not be as significant as the public image he is portraying, said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington, D.C., government watchdog group.
"This is like saying to your neighbor, `By the way, I'm going to borrow your car, do some things that I think will be good for the community, and you have to pay for it,"' Schatz said. He added: "It is something that he simply shouldn't be doing if he really is living by the words he seems to be expressing in terms of fiscal responsibility."
When Nixon announced his blueprint for "right-sizing and refocusing state government" in March, he flew to a meeting of business leaders in Springfield to do so. A month later, he flew to Kansas City for a progress report and announced he had ordered state employees to cut their travel by 10 percent in the next fiscal year. He repeated the message the next day in Columbia and St. Louis -- splitting the flight costs among numerous state agencies.
Yet in May, Nixon flew even more frequently than before -- averaging a flight every other day and billing agencies nearly $25,000.
At a June news conference announcing more budget cuts, Nixon defended his travel by citing flights to visit the families of deceased soldiers.
"I need to show the respect of the state in many of those ceremonial things, whether it's a graduation ceremony or a welcome home ceremony or honoring someone who's passed," Nixon said. "Those are obligations I think a chief executive of the state needs to engage in."
But a comparison of flight records to the governor's news releases and daily schedule show many flights were to promote policy proposals, announce grants or hold ceremonial bill signings.
Nixon was a passenger on more than 70 percent of all non-law enforcement flights taken from June 1, 2009, through May 31 on the twin-engine, turbo-prop planes maintained by the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the Department of Conservation. The flights typically cost more than $800 per hour.
Other statewide elected officials rarely used the planes. Attorney General Chris Koster flew three times; Treasurer Clint Zweifel twice, both times with Nixon; and Auditor Susan Montee just once. Secretary of State Robin Carnahan and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder didn't take any flights on state planes, though Kinder did fly once -- costing the state $235 -- on Southwest Airlines.
When traveling on state business, Kinder typically drives himself in a vehicle paid for by his campaign committee, said chief of staff Rich AuBuchon.
"Given the financial constraints the state of Missouri is under at present, it does not seem prudent to use the state plane for travel," said AuBuchon, who was the deputy administration commissioner under former Republican Gov. Matt Blunt.
Additionally, "it just doesn't look good," AuBuchon said.