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Government, Politics & Issues

Flight flaps often snag Missouri governors

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 22, 2011 - Political opponents, and even some allies, decry how the governor is handling his travel. At issue are the cost and frequency of his flights, ownership of the plane, and level of transparency.

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, is currently in the midst of such a controversy. But so were his three predecessors -- Republican Matt Blunt and Democrats Bob Holden and Mel Carnahan.

The only difference was in the particulars.

Holden's case is most similar to Nixon's. Holden, like Nixon, attracted Republican fire over the frequency and cost of his flights.

During a state budget crunch in 2001, his first year in office, Holden was criticized because he'd spent more than $80,000 on flights on the state plane during his first six months.

Almost all of those first six months' worth of flights were directly covered by the governor's office so they could be easily tracked. But after the controversy arose, Holden's staff shifted many subsequent travel costs -- about 40 percent, according to news accounts -- to other state agencies or departments.

Holden, like Nixon, said it was important for the governor to be seen around the state -- and flying is often the swiftest way to do it. Holden and his staff -- like Nixon -- also said it was fair for various state departments to foot the bill if the governor's trip was tied to that department's activities or achievements.

In any case, the GOP-led state Senate at one point jabbed Holden by giving him a "golden goose award'' in 2003 for his approach to state travel.

Holden, by the way, also was under pressure from some legislators, notably fellow Democrats, who believed that the governor -- like the president of the United States -- should always travel on a government-owned plane. They objected to the proposal of some Republicans that Holden should get rid of the state plane and, allegedly for less money, contract private planes when travel was necessary.

The objections were passionate for a notable reason. Holden took office less than three months after then-Gov. Carnahan (Missouri's last two-term governor, by the way) had died in an October 2000 crash of a small plane owned by his family and flown by his eldest son, Randy. Mel Carnahan also had a pilot's license, and his family often flew small planes, particularly for private or campaign travel.

Mel Carnahan generally flew on the state plane for state business, but some officeholders asserted afterward that the crash was evidence that Missouri's governor should stick to state or commercial aircraft -- even when not on official business.

Blunt, who succeeded Holden in 2005, also faced early criticism for his use of the state plane. Blunt got around the problem quickly by shifting entirely to flying on private planes -- the cost of which were covered by his campaign or donors.

Blunt then came under fire because he didn't disclose when or where he traveled or who accompanied him. (He generally was believed to be accompanied by a security detail, and at times was joined by political allies, and perhaps lobbyists. No one knew for sure.)

The only record of Blunt's flights would be on his campaign reports, and even then, details often were lacking. Blunt claimed he was saving the state more than $400 a flight hour; critics contended any savings was outweighed by the secrecy.

By 2008, after he announced he wasn't seeking re-election, Blunt began flying on state planes again. That change also prompted criticism and further questions about his earlier private-plane preference.

One of Blunt's critics, by the way, was Nixon, then Missouri's attorney general. Nixon continued to use the state plane to travel around Missouri on official business, and -- during Blunt's tenure as governor -- often was the statewide official who flew most frequently on state planes.

As Nixon's sparring with Blunt heated up, Republicans began zeroing in on the costs of Nixon's flights. Nixon and his staff retorted that at least his flights, and who traveled with him, were public record.

(Nixon also got ensnared in a separate controversy in 2007 when a GOP tracker filmed Nixon traveling in a state car when he stopped by some campaign events. Nixon argued that he was attorney general 24/7, but his campaign later reimbursed the state for travel costs to campaign events. Meanwhile, Blunt continued to travel to campaign events in state vehicles, at state expense. When he was criticized, Blunt cited state law that allowed him to do so.)

Nixon's argument now is similar to Holden's almost a decade ago. At the request of GOP legislators, the Office of Administration has calculated that Nixon's air travel has cost almost $390,000 since he took office in January 2009.

Of Nixon's 254 trips cited, all but seven were covered by the travel budgets of various state departments or agencies. The seven were paid by the governor's office.

House Republicans already are asserting they will try to insert language into the state budget to restrict when the governor could assign his travel costs to another department or agency.

In the meantime, Nixon's spokesman Scott Holste said that the governor had no plans to change how he travels -- or who pays for it. When flights deal with the function of an agency or department, such as promoting jobs or attending a soldier's funeral, Holste said Nixon feels it's appropriate for that section of state government to pay the bill.

In any case, Holste noted that all of the flights have been recorded in detail and made public by the Office of Administration. Alluding to the old fights with Blunt, Holste added that at least Nixon's air travel -- now, as in the old attorney general days -- "is transparent."

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