"I think taxpayers would not say it's a good use of our public dollars. Some would even be outraged."
April 16, 2008
KPRC Channel 2 (Houston, TX)
HOUSTON -- Note: The following story is a verbatim transcript of a Local 2 Investigates story that aired on Tuesday, April 15, 2008, on KPRC Local 2 at 10 p.m.
Tonight, Local 2 Investigates private planes paid for by your money. When public officials travel on small planes owned by the state, you're paying the expensive bills.
We discovered the total price tag for the program in just two years is more than $6 million. But is it necessary?
Local 2 investigative reporter Robert Arnold shows you which state officials are taking the flights and why you're getting stuck with the bill.
Say you're heading to Austin for business or fun, would you pay $1,173 to fly roundtrip from Houston to get there?
Get out your wallets. That's what you paid to fly a state official in a small private plane from Austin to Houston. Your tax money funds a fleet of small planes run by the Texas Department of Transportation in Austin.
Local 2 Investigates tracked two years worth of the taxpayer-funded flights (fiscal years 2006 and 2007) to see who is taking the flights and why. We wanted to know why taxpayers are paying so much when other travel options can often cost so much less.
We found the state's most frequent flier in those two years was former state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley.
Neeley traveled for speeches and meetings, racking up 62 flights in two years with a total price tag of $97,645.
"She did fly a lot and used the state aircraft pooling board a lot," said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. "She thought it was an excellent service."
You paid for that service.
Neeley made dozens of speeches to small school districts. Often a private plane was the only time-effective way to get there.
However, Local 2 Investigates found roughly half of Neeley's expensive flights were from Austin to bigger cities where she could have taken cheaper commercial flights.
Neeley made nine trips from Austin to Houston, primarily traveling with her assistant. Those nine roundtrip flights cost taxpayers $10,337.
That's around $1,100 for each trip. We found commercial flights for less than half that amount, even when we booked flights for the next day.
Just one of Neeley's flights from Austin to Dallas cost $1,413. It cost $2,084 to fly from Austin to Midland, $2,635 to Amarillo and $3,282 for a flight to El Paso.
"There would be other times when she had a tight schedule and it made for efficient use of her time to take a state plane even into larger cities because she could go and come back and get other work done," said Ratcliffe.
"I think taxpayers would not say it's a good use of our public dollars," said Peggy Venable with Americans for Prosperity, a conservative taxpayer watchdog group in Austin. "Some would even be outraged."
Venable said many successful large businesses would not even use private jets for all those big city flights.
"One reason I think people are cynical about how government spends our money is because it's easier to spend someone else's money," Venable said. "That's just what they're doing."
Local 2 Investigates discovered taxpayers are paying for more than just pricey flights for state officials.
Records show University of Texas football and basketball coaches took 43 flights over two years. The total price tag was around $115,000. We discovered UT athletics paid its own way without spending taxpayer or university dollars.
However, you likely still footed some of the bill and it's not UT's fault. A state audit in 2006 found the state planes were losing big money. The audit reported the total annual loss at $972,441 for fiscal year 2006.
That means taxpayers ended up subsidizing every flight, including all those UT athletic flights.
"I think as taxpayers more scrutinize how those tax dollars are spent, they're going to be asking a lot more questions of public officials," said Venable.
The Texas Department of Transportation said now its fleet of planes no longer operates at a loss.
"We're looking to make sure we do it safer, more efficiently more cost effectively than anyone else," said Randall Dillard, a Texas Department of Transportation spokesman.
TxDOT increased the prices it charges state officials for flights and it sold off some planes to balance the books. This year's budget for the state planes is $4.2 million. Still, TXDOT has no say whether a state official's trip is a win or loss for taxpayers.
"(State agencies) have to make the decision if it's cost effective for that particular trip," said Dillard. "They're the ones who will have to pay the bill and justify that."
"We'd like to see the governor go back to zero-based budgeting and see programs like this have to justify themselves," said Venable. "I don't think (TxDOT flight services) would make that cut."
Several audits and studies over the past decade have recommended to end the state plane travel program. Each said it would be cheaper for state officials to fly commercial or even pay to charter private aircraft.
Gov. Rick Perry once called for the same change but now says the program is working fine under TxDOT.
Shirley Neeley resigned from the Texas Education Agency in July 2007.
More information: 2006 State Audit
If you have a news tip or question for KPRC Local 2 Investigates, drop them an e-mail or call their tipline at (713) 223-TIPS (8477).
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