in Houston, Texas

State senators rack up big bills using charter flights, personal planes

Thursday, Nov 05, 2009, 10:11AM CST
By Lee Ann O'Neal

Continued from page 1.

Where are senators traveling? Check out some highlights by clicking on the Google Map below. Click the text below the map to see a larger version.


View Texas state senators' travel, 2008-09 in a larger map

Most senators bought commercial plane tickets when they needed to travel by air, according to their travel documents. But a handful sometimes used state planes, charter planes or, for senator-pilots, their own private planes. They spent more than $86,000 during the year and a half on noncommercial air travel, with more than half of that bill coming from just three senators.

Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, spent more than $15,800 on flights through the state Department of Transportation or chartered through a hometown firm, Lubbock Aero. Some of those flights involved getting several places in one day, like the Oct. 9, 2008, flights from Lubbock to Austin to San Angelo to Lubbock, which cost $2,824.

Duncan

Duncan's spokeswoman said the large size, rural nature and lack of commercial airports in Duncan's district necessitated the use of noncommercial flights.

"Despite the size of Senator Duncan’s district, he believes it’s an important part of his role as a legislator to travel its 46 counties as often as possible to meet with his constituents," spokeswoman Deon Daugherty Allen said by e-mail. She said when Duncan flies noncommercial, his staff compares the cost of charter and TxDOT flights, opting for the cheaper.

Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, spent almost as much as Duncan, billing $15,100 for four flights from TxDOT's aviation division.

Uresti's forms were thin on descriptions, with the "specific state purpose" left blank in his travel logs. A spokesman said the trips, in February and August of last year, included two visits to see officials in Marfa, one to Eagle Pass, an event in Laredo with U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, and the grand opening of a district office in Pecos.

The Pecos flight was the priciest, at $5,129.14, of all the specially hired flights in the Senate records. Uresti started out on Aug. 22, flying from Austin to San Antonio and then to Fort Stockton. The next day he went on to Pecos and back to San Antonio, returning to Austin.

Uresti

Uresti spokesman Mark Langford said the noncommercial flights were needed because of the size of the district and lack of commercial airline service.

"You have to stay in touch with the people you represent," he said.

The district "covers 55,000 square miles. It's huge," Langford said. "None of these places have commercial airline service. We can't just go buy a Southwest Airlines ticket and go to any of those places."

But for some senators, you can just hop in your own plane.

Sen. John Carona did just that, spending almost $17,000 on mileage reimbursement for using his private plane. View the records here and here. The Dallas Republican used his personal plane mainly to get from Dallas to Austin and Houston, all cities with sizable airports.

The state reimbursement for personal aircraft use during the time period examined was $1.07 per mile, though it's since gone up. Carona’s round trips from Dallas to Austin cost taxpayers $415, compared to the commercial plane tickets that could be secured for less. For example, Democratic Sen. Royce West, also from Dallas, frequently made the round trip for $307.50 or less.

Carona's most expensive flight was between Dallas and El Paso last July, at a roundtrip cost of about $1,300.

Carona said he uses his personal plane because of tight scheduling requirements of the Senate and his job. Carona is president and CEO of Associa, a national firm that specializes in homeowner association management.

Carona

"Covering both responsibilities in an efficient fashion necessitates that I avoid canceled flights and long delays in airport terminals," Carona said by e-mail. "Therefore, by necessity, I fly private aircraft whenever possible. It allows me to fulfill my duties, without disruption, to both my constituents and my clients."

Carona sometimes shuttles other lawmakers back and forth on his flights, Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw said. "A number of members will hop on with him."

Wide latitude on travel

But the rules --- which the senators author and approve --- for the most part give them carte blanche to travel how best they see fit to carry out their duties.

Senators may be reimbursed for "all actual expenses incurred by the members when traveling in performance of legislative duties and responsibilities or incident to those duties," according to Senate Resolution 1116 adopted in June at the close of this past legislative session. The language has remained unchanged for several years, Senate staff said.

This rule gives them wide latitude to decide how and when to travel.

And it means there's no cap on how much a senator's hotel bill may cost. It gives senators the freedom to attend a conference held at a luxury resort. It means that if a senator has scheduled back-to-back appearances on opposite ends of the state that make getting a Continental ticket tricky, he can just hop on a state plane. And it allows legislators to seek reimbursement for use of private planes, even if they're traveling between two points with commercial service.

"The method of transportation is not proscribed, but the reimbursement rates are," Spaw said by e-mail. "The determining factor is one of necessity -- which method works with the member's schedule."

Travel regulations are stiffer for rank-and-file state workers.

For example, they must adhere to federal spending caps incorporated into Texas' travel regulations and based on the market they're traveling to and the time of year they're traveling. For the New York conference Ellis attended, an average state worker would have been limited to a hotel costing $279 per night or less.

And if a group of state workers are all driving to a conference, they must carpool with four workers to a vehicle.

The rules are somewhat tighter for senators using aircraft belonging to the state, though they are given wide latitude to cite scheduling difficulties as a reason for needing a hired plane.

TxDOT planes may be used if a destination does not have commercial service, if the passenger's schedule does not allow for use of a commercial carrier, or if the number of passengers traveling makes using a TxDOT plane cheaper than flying commercial, according to state law governing the planes' use. The rules ban using the planes for private or political purposes.

"State officers and employees who are traveling on official business" and people in their "care or custody" may use the TxDOT planes, the state law says.

Contact Lee Ann O'Neal at leeann@texaswatchdog.org or 713-980-9777.


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Comments
Gonzalo Camacho
Thursday, 11/05/2009 - 10:56AM

From the following page

http://www.laits.utexas.edu/txp_media/html/leg/0205.html

2.5 Compensation

State legislators are paid meager salaries. Senators and representatives alike earn only $7,200 per year, or $14,400 for a two-year legislative period. Some may consider this salary generous, since after all legislators work only for 140 days over two years. However, this salary equals just slightly over $100 per day. Even if our legislators worked only eight hours per day, this would equal only $12.86 per hour for the people who make our state laws and conduct oversight of executive branch offices.

The truth is that legislators work for many days leading up to the legislative session, and then work very long hours, seven days a week, once the session begins. Furthermore, legislators spend a lot of time campaigning for office and subsequently servicing constituents. This reduces hourly compensation to well below minimum wage.

AR
Thursday, 11/05/2009 - 01:48PM

These people have absolutely no shame! Amazing!!! BTW did we the taxpayers foot the bill for Rodney Ellis\' in-room viewing of a \"family\" movie on 7/11/08? Did anyone else notice that Gallego\'s first hotel expense was at the hotel lobby bar? You can\'t make this stuff up.

Lee Ann O'Neal
Thursday, 11/05/2009 - 02:21PM

AR, from what I can tell Sen. Ellis did not bill the taxpayers for the movie on 7/11/08. I'm basing this on the expenses billed on the first page, the travel voucher. Ellis claimed $990 for the hotel (that's two nights at $495 per night) plus the hotel-motel taxes for two nights.

Good catch! There's certainly lots of interesting details in these records.

Thanks for reading and commenting on the story,

Lee Ann O'Neal

leeann@texaswatchdog.org

Lee Ann O'Neal
Thursday, 11/05/2009 - 02:23PM

Gonzalo Camacho, thanks for reading and writing in. We like having a robust discussion here at Texas Watchdog.

Lee Ann O'Neal

leeann@texaswatchdog.org

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