Sunday, June 01, 2008

"Muckety-mucks are jumping on the planes just because it's easier."

Airplane fleet draws scrutiny

State officials still using tax-funded aircraft 5 years after calls to sell them

June 1, 2008

Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — Five years after Texas leaders tried to disband the state's airplane fleet, officials still call on the service to fly them to meetings, award ceremonies, funerals and even a neighboring GOP governor's inauguration.

Office-holders and bureaucrats, including Gov. Rick Perry, say they look at cost and efficiency before deciding whether to use the aircraft, which range from $258.75 to $977.50 per flight-hour.

But some question the fleet, since bills are often footed by taxpayers and commercial airfare may be cheaper.

"It sure does raise the eyebrows and make the nose crinkle a bit," said Michael Quinn Sullivan of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. "Between two really good Texas-based airlines, there's any number of options to get from anywhere to anywhere by air pretty quickly."

Then-Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Perry talked about selling the planes during the 2003 budget crunch.

But the Texas Department of Transportation, which oversees the fleet, expects it to log 1,227 more flight hours this two-year budget period than last. The planes are expected to fly a total of 3,350 hours at a cost of $2.3 million this budget cycle.

"State agencies have seen the value of our services as an effective business tool," said Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Chris Lippincott, noting the cost to fly on commercial airlines "continues to rise and its reliability continues to deteriorate."

Louisiana trip questioned

State taxpayers don't pay for trips funded by donations or other sources. Among them: University of Texas president's travel and UT football recruiting jaunts, paid by the self-sufficient athletics department. They also didn't foot the bill for a trip by Texas A&M basketball coaches and players to the Big 12 media day in Kansas City.

But many other trips are paid by the state and may draw closer scrutiny, such as a $3,962 trip by Perry, a staffer and a member of his security detail to Baton Rouge for the inauguration of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a fellow Republican. Perry, who heads the Republican Governors Association, spoke at the prayer breakfast.

"I'd want to know, did he go to (Democratic New Mexico Gov.) Bill Richardson's inauguration?" asked state Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco, head of the House Democratic Caucus. "If he didn't go to Richardson's, I think it's pretty apparent this is a partisan political trip. If he's going to do that, he ought to do it on his own dime. He's got plenty of money in his campaign. Taxpayers shouldn't pay for it."

Perry spokesman Robert Black dismissed the idea that the trip was political, asking, "When was Richardson inaugurated? I have no idea if he (Perry) was even invited."

"Most Texans recognize that the states of Louisiana and Texas have a unique relationship that has grown out of the natural disasters that happened a few years ago," Black said, noting efforts led by Perry to help after Hurricane Katrina.

Perry's office notes that most of his travel, aside from that on state aircraft, is paid for by his campaign.

His Baton Rouge trip was among a slew of state-airplane records covering the six months ending in March examined by the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle.

Among officials and departments using state money to pay for flights and billed more than $20,000 apiece for the time period were Perry ($24,537); Attorney General Greg Abbott and staff ($21,943); TxDOT ($130,568); the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality ($56,560) and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and staff ($50,302).

Commercial cost compared

Destinations included news conferences, public meetings and award ceremonies. They also included memorial services for Texas Transportation Commission chairman Ric Williamson and for Kate Marmion, granddaughter of former Gov. Dolph Briscoe. Officials also flew to meetings on the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor by transportation officials.

In choosing a state plane, officials say they consider factors including the number of people traveling, availability of commercial flights and whether the costs and delays of overnight stays can be avoided.

Some trips invite comparison to commercial airfares, including Perry's to Baton Rouge, since an online booking service currently shows round-trip flights for as low as $480 per person or $1,458 for three people. Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle noted Perry's schedule and commercial flight schedules play into such decisions.

Another is a March 7 trip to Houston by Staples and two others at a cost of $2,346. Southwest Airlines' flight schedule shows three adults could currently travel round-trip for $257.50 apiece, or a total of $772.50.

Staples spokesman Bryan Black said Staples got to Houston at 7:45 a.m. for a school award presentation and, after a day of events capped by a speech at the International Brangus Breeders Association Banquet and Awards Dinner, left at 9:30 p.m.

That would have been too late to make the last commercial flight. In addition, Staples was due in the Panhandle town of Hereford the next day — he went by state plane at a cost of $2,659.

Bryan Black noted Staples often visits hard-to-reach rural areas, but uses commercial flights when he can and often drives: "He wants to make sure that he visits with Texans and listens to what they have to say."

Trips to districts

Three state senators flew state planes during the six-month period examined: Sens. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and Kip Averitt, R-Waco. Uresti racked up the largest bill of the three at $13,009 for trips to Marfa, Del Rio, Eagle Pass and Laredo.

"I have the largest senatorial district, geographically, not only in Texas but in the United States — 55,000 square miles," Uresti said. He said he is "very selective" in using state aircraft, but sometimes must make several stops in hard-to-reach places.

"There's no easy way to get to Marfa," he said. "My constituents in Alpine, in Del Rio, in Fort Stockton, they want their state senator at their town hall meetings. It's there for that use. I don't abuse it."

The state fleet is in addition to airplanes belonging solely to individual agencies, such as the UT and A&M systems and Texas Department of Public Safety, which may still use the state fleet.

Sullivan, of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, said he isn't suggesting officials are wrong to use a fleet that's at their disposal, but lawmakers should take a hard look at whether it's necessary to maintain it.

How small is $18 million?

"There's certainly the occasional need for someone to be transported in that way," Sullivan said, citing law enforcement and response to natural disasters. But he added, "When you find out these various muckety-mucks are jumping on the planes just because it's easier to do that, that's not right."

The fleet, previously under the State Aircraft Pooling Board, was targeted by Strayhorn and Perry in 2003 when the state faced a $10 billion budget shortfall. Strayhorn then said selling the planes and associated property would yield $18.2 million. Perry vetoed the pooling board, but the fleet was transferred to TxDOT.

Perry spokeswoman Kristi Piferrer said Perry "doesn't really have an opinion one way or another" now about whether the fleet should be maintained. She said, "His main priority has always been that aircraft are used for state business and are operated on a cost recovery basis."

Sullivan said $18 million is a small percentage of the state's $152.5 billion two-year budget but added, "It's not a small amount of money ... You take the richest person in Texas, and they notice when $18 million is gone."

Trip highlights for officials and agencies who paid more than $20,000 in state funds to use state aircraft in the six-month period ending in March.

Gov. Rick Perry*
Total: $24,537 Snapshots :

• $3,962 for Perry, a staff member and a member of his security detail to fly to Baton Rouge Jan. 13-14 for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's inauguration.

• $2,107 for Perry; his wife, Anita; former chief of staff Deirdre Delisi; UT System regent James Huffines; former state Rep. Ron Wilson; and three others to fly to Mineral Wells on Jan. 3 for a memorial service for former Transportation Commission chairman Ric Williamson.

• $1,911 for Perry; his wife, Anita; Luci Baines Johnson; Ian Turpin; Huffines and three others to fly to Uvalde on Jan. 24 to a memorial service for Kate Marmion, granddaughter of former Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe.

Attorney General Greg Abbott*
Total: $21,943 Snapshots:

• $1,961 for Abbott and five others to fly Nov. 13 to Kerrville and San Antonio for school safety events.

• $2,302 for Abbott and six others to fly to Tyler on March 24 for the opening of the Texas Cyber Security Research and Training Institute at the University of Texas at Tyler.

• $2,232 for Abbott and three others to travel to Corpus Christi on Feb. 25 for a school safety conference.

Texas Department of Transportation
Total: $130,568


• $4,214 for two planes carrying Commissioner Ted Houghton, then-Commissioner Hope Andrade and nine others to Mineral Wells on Jan. 3 for memorial service for former commission chairman Ric Williamson.

• $4,972 for Commissioner Ted Houghton and five others to get to Sugar Land, Lufkin and Texarkana Nov. 12-13 for briefings and a meeting on the Trans-Texas Corridor 69 project.

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
Total: $56,560


• $3,070 for TCEQ officials, Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, and staff totaling eight people to travel to Arlington and Houston Jan. 8 for "Drive a Clean Machine" press tour.

• $3,030 for five people from TCEQ to go to Lubbock Nov. 14 for an advisory group meeting.

Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples
Total: $50,302 Snapshots:

• $2,346 for Staples and two others to fly to Houston March 7 to present an award at a school, announce a grant for home-delivered meals for older people, speak with Brahman cattle breeders at the Houston Livestock Show, do interview, discuss with Mexican delegation the closure of agriculture department's border pens to certain cattle, speak at International Brangus Breeders Association banquet.

• $2,659 for Staples and three others to travel to Hereford March 8 to announce an economic development grant, have a working lunch with city officials, tour a new ethanol plant and give a keynote at the plant's grand opening.

* The governor and attorney general withheld the release of travel logs showing their security detail, so the number of people may be greater in some instances.

Sources: Texas Department of Transportation records, Texas Department of Agriculture, offices of governor and attorney general
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