TxDOT jet-sets all over state abusing access to State Aircraft

Link to article here.

Just when you’d think things at TxDOT can’t get any worse, a front page story appears telling of their abuse of state airplanes for $130,000 worth of jet-setting across the state on the taxpayers’ dime! At least one of those trips was taken by Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton who used the planes to illegally lobby in favor of the Trans Texas Corridor TTC-69 project at a workshop they initiated with elected officials (which is against the law) and then lied about sponsoring it.

This event is part of TURF’s evidence against TxDOT in our lawsuit to stop it’s propaganda campaign and illegal lobbying. The other two offenders: Rick Perry and the Attorney General (who is representing TxDOT against the taxpayers in our lawsuit to stop their illegal lobbying and ad campaign) with over $20,000 each in state-funded travel for what can be argued was personal and/or political travel.

Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and Empower Texans, whose Director is quoted in the article, put together this video as a spoof on TxDOT’s luxury airline use at taxpayer expense. Watch it!

Cost, uses of state’s plane fleet targeted
By Peggy Fikac
Express-News Austin Bureau

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, awards ceremonies, funerals and even a neighboring GOP governor’s inauguration.

Officeholders and bureaucrats, including Gov. Rick Perry, say they look at cost and efficiency before deciding whether to use the aircraft, which cost $258.75 to $977.50 per flight hour and are allowed for official state business.

But some question the fleet because bills are often footed by taxpayers and because commercial airfare may look 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 up selling the planes during a 2003 budget crunch.

But the Texas Department of Transportation, which oversees the fleet, expects it to log 1,227 more flight hours — for a total of 3,350 or about $2.3 million worth of flying time — in this two-year budget period than the last.

“State agencies have seen the value of our services as an effective business tool,” said TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott, noting commercial air travel’s cost “continues to rise, and its reliability continues to deteriorate.”

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

Louisiana trip questioned

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 the governor’s 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.”

“Not only was the governor invited … to participate in Bobby Jindal’s inauguration, I think 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 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.

Among officials 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 administration, government and public affairs, and other divisions ($130,568); the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality ($56,560); and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and staff ($50,302).

Commercial cost compared

Destinations used with the fleet included news conferences, public meetings and awards ceremonies. They also included memorial services for Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson and for Kate Marmion, granddaughter of former Gov. Dolph Briscoe, and meetings on the Trans-Texas Corridor by transportation officials.

In choosing a state plane, officials say they consider factors including productive use of time, avoiding the cost and delay of overnight stays, number of people traveling and availability of commercial flights.

Some trips invite comparison to commercial airfares — including Perry’s to Baton Rouge, because an online booking service currently shows roundtrip flights as low as $486 per person ($647 per person for a flight departing in the evening) or totals of $1,458 to $1,941 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 roundtrip 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. Compounding the time crunch was that Staples was due in 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.”

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 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.”

How small is $18 million?

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

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.

“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. At the time, Strayhorn said selling the planes and associated property would yield $18.2 million. Perry vetoed the pooling board from the budget, but the fleet was transferred to TxDOT.

Perry spokeswoman Krista Piferrer said Perry “doesn’t really have an opinion one way or another” now about whether the fleet should be maintained.

“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.”