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Analysis: Nixon, Kinder now share travel trouble

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder suddenly has a lot more in common with Gov. Jay Nixon — and that could make Kinder’s likely challenge of Nixon a bit more complicated in the 2012 elections.

What Missouri’s top two executives share is some heavy baggage when it comes to their travel at taxpayers’ expense.

Nixon, a Democrat, has come under criticism for billing the cost of his frequent airplane flights to state agencies instead of his own office — essentially passing the buck to other parts of government at the very time he has been telling government to cut costs.

That could have made for a compelling commercial by a political opponent.

But Kinder, a Republican, now also has come under criticism for charging taxpayers for his frequent hotel stays, many of them at posh places in the St. Louis area, albeit at a discounted government rate.

As a result, that potential political ad attacking Nixon’s travel would almost assuredly be rebutted with an ad criticizing Kinder’s travel. And that may mean neither ad ever runs.

“Both candidates sort of are tarred with this,” said Marvin Overby, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “They’re going to want to talk about other things, and they are going to be in the position of having to pass on a potential weakness in the other candidate because they have that weakness too.”

The travel saga may be the most politically costly to Kinder — not because his action is any worse, but because it muddies the challenger’s ability to criticize the incumbent.

The Associated Press first reported in 2009 that Nixon was billing other agencies for his airplane flights, a practice which he has continued and defended as an appropriate cost allocation. In January and February alone, Nixon’s office racked up $30,263 of flight costs that were charged to various state agencies, according to the Office of Administration.

Former Missouri Auditor Susan Montee, who now is chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, said in a January audit that it appeared inappropriate for state agencies to bear the costs of gubernatorial travel that at times bore no clear benefit to the agencies. Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike also have taken issue with Nixon’s flight billing. The proposed 2012 budget recently passed by the House would prohibit most state agencies from paying for the travel costs of statewide executive officials.

But Nixon’s problem also became Kinder’s when the St. Post-Dispatch reported last week that Kinder had received state reimbursements totaling $35,050 for at least 329 nights at hotels in St. Louis and St. Louis County since 2006. Those included 236 nights at the Chase Park Plaza, where Kinder typically was billed at the discounted government rate of about $119 with tax included. Some of those hotel stays coincided with Kinder’s attendance at sporting events, society galas and a tea party rally.

Kinder defended the hotel costs and said all of the trips related to official state business, even if he also attended some political events after business hours. Yet Kinder announced last week that his campaign committee would pay the state $35,050 to make sure there was no “taint or suspicion” about his activities.

The payment resembled Nixon’s response to a prior travel saga in October 2007, when Nixon was attorney general and running for governor. Nixon’s campaign committee paid the state about $47,000 after it was revealed that Nixon used his state vehicle and attorney general’s staff for political travel. Although Missouri law prohibits state vehicles from being used for private purposes, Nixon had justified the practice by claiming he was always on duty as attorney general — even while campaigning — and said the staff was necessary for security.

Nixon’s campaign pledged in 2007 to instead lease a vehicle for his travels and explained that it made the payment so he could focus on more important issues. Kinder likewise said last week that his campaign would lease a condominium in St. Louis for future travel and explained that he made the state payment so the focus could return to more important issues.

Kinder, however, sought to distinguish the controversy over his travel from that surrounding Nixon’s current travel patterns.

“My travel is transparent and fully out of my own office budget — his is neither,” Kinder said.

Nixon has not publicly commented by Kinder’s travel. But Nixon has defended his own flight billing as transparent to the public.

Whether the potential gubernatorial rivals will attempt to make a bigger issue out of the other’s travel may depend on several factors.

“People are going to be doing constant polling and focus groups and talking to individuals to see what they remember, what sticks and what can be used in a campaign ad,” said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. As of now, “we don’t know the answer of what is going to die off and what is going to be used to bludgeon opponents in next year’s elections.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE — David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995.

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