Lawmakers to target Nixon’s flights

Missouri House leaders made a bipartisan pledge Monday to block Gov. Jay Nixon from billing state agencies for his airplane flights — a practice the governor has continued even while ordering employees to cut back on their own travel.

House Speaker Steven Tilley and Minority Leader Mike Talboy told The Associated Press they intend to insert provisions into the budget bills for Missouri departments prohibiting agency money from being used for gubernatorial travel.

The AP first reported in 2009 that Nixon was charging agencies for his flights instead of paying for them out of his office budget. Nixon, a Democrat, said Monday that it is both appropriate and efficient to bill departments, especially when agency officials accompany him on trips related to issues they oversee.

But legislative leaders said Nixon is diverting state money from its intended purpose. Tilley said “it’s deceiving to the public” for Nixon to bill agencies for his flights.

“We don’t believe it is appropriate for the governor to raid the already stretched budgets of these agencies to subsidize his travels and will take steps to prevent that from happening in the future,” said Tilley, R-Perryville.

Talboy, D-Kansas City, described it as “a matter of transparency.”

“Although it is important for the governor to conduct business throughout the state, the travel expenses of his office should be paid for out of the budget for his office.”

Lawmakers typically provide the governor with an annual lump-sum budget, which does not specify how much must go toward salaries, equipment or travel.

Nixon rejected assertions that his flight-billing practices lacked transparency. He noted the costs and destinations of state airplane flights — as well as a list of passengers — are public records available upon request. And he contrasted his approach with that of former Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, who traveled on private planes paid for with campaign money during his first three years in office — a practice that saved the state money but shielded the identities of those traveling with him. Blunt began using a state plane only after announcing he would not seek re-election.

“I think it’s exceedingly transparent, if the economic development director is with me and some of his staff, that they pay a portion of the cost when we’re going to create jobs in the state of Missouri,” Nixon said Monday.

“We cost-allocate all through government,“ Nixon added. ”That’s one of the ways you get more efficiency in government. If you’re going to fight cost-allocation, then you’re going to set up separate fiefdoms in each one of our departments.“

Nixon often bills a specific agency for his flights. But he sometimes splits his travel cost among about a dozen state offices when the trips have no direct connection to specific agencies, such as his attendance at sporting events.

Then-Auditor Susan Montee, a Democrat, said in an audit released earlier this month that it appeared inappropriate for agencies to pay for gubernatorial flights “that provide no clear benefit to the applicable agencies.” Montee is now the chairwoman of the Missouri Democratic Party.

The AP reported last year that Nixon continued to bill flights to state agencies even while instructing them to cut back on their own travel expenses. In April 2009, for example, Nixon flew to Kansas City to provide a progress report on his plan for “right-sizing” government and to announce he had ordered employees to cut their travel by 10 percent in the next fiscal year. Yet in the month immediately following that, Nixon flew even more frequently — averaging a flight every other day and billing agencies nearly $25,000.

Assistant House Minority Leader Tishaura Jones, of St. Louis, said Monday that if lawmakers were to follow Nixon’s logic, they could bill the governor’s office each time they traveled to appear at one of his news conferences. Instead, each lawmaker has his or her own expense account.

“We can’t turn a blind eye when something like this — as glaring as charging departments for travel — comes out in the press numerous times,“ Jones said.

The legislative denouncement marks the second time in recent days that some of Nixon’s fellow Democrats have taken issue with his financial decisions.

Last week, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Sara Lampe of Springfield, joined Republican committee chairman Ryan Silvey of Kansas City in calling upon Nixon to release $70 million he previously cut from public school busing. As the lawmakers held a news conference, Nixon’s budget director said the governor had decided to release $7.5 million for school busing.

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