Sure, our lieutenant governor in his race for office promised voters that he was going to bring “a new day and a bold day in Texas.” It was a theme of Dan Patrick’s campaign, and when he trounced former Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst in the Republican primary runoff, Patrick declared, “It’s a new day in Texas.” And after his swearing in, Patrick asked the crowd, “What day is it? It’s a new day in Texas.”
Patrick gave state senators a grade of “A-minus” — no one’s perfect, he quipped. He spoke first about increased spending — $800 million — for border security. He also praised tax relief for property and business owners.
Yep, no one’s perfect, and Patrick’s tour looks like a return to the days when state officials used the resources of the taxpayers, the perks of their office and their official capacities for the exercise of a perpetual campaign.
As I searched this morning for news coverage of Patrick’s tour from yesterday, I found the above photograph at KTRE.com of the plane Patrick was using to boldly tour Texas. It wasn’t the starship Enterprise, but a twin-engine turbo-prop aircraft owned by the Texas Department of Transportation, N116TX. Seven-seat capacity. Cruising speed of 310 mph. Range, 1,400 miles. Sweet and hard to beat for the officeholder on the go.
Once upon a time, the statewide elected officials all had their own agency aircraft. Controversy led to the consolidation in the Aircraft Pooling Board. Now, the transportation department oversees the Texas state air force. There are reasons for the state to own aircraft. Lawyers from the attorney general’s office may need to attend a hearing in a courthouse where there is no regular commercial service. Transportation officials may need to inspect a bridge in a remote part of the state.
Then there is a history of state aircraft just being a perk of office. I once asked a Republican operative why would any big-dollar political donor want an appointment to the Public Safety Commission, and he responded, “because they get to ride in the helicopter.”
The taxpayer-owned aircraft at the politician’s bidding is a bipartisan issue. When Democrats ran the state in 1991 and raised taxes and fees by $2.7 billion, The Dallas Morning News reported that they also spent tens of thousands of dollars traveling the state on taxpayer-owned aircraft. Land Commissioner Garry Mauro racked up almost $70,000 in flight time, while Governor Ann Richards’ flying cost the state $46,800. One of the few Republicans in the group, Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry, cost the state $26,000 for 29 trips to speak to farm groups, including an 11-city news conference tour to promote agricultural processing that cost $5,700.
As governor in 2003, Perry and then-Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn urged the Legislature to do away with the state aircraft fleet as a cost-saving measure. That did not stop Perry five years later from spending $3,962 on a state airplane to fly to the inauguration of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a fellow Republican, according to a story by Peggy Fikac in the San Antonio Express-News. Democrats complained that the trip was partisan because Perry did not attend the inauguration of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a Democrat.
Perry usually did not use state aircraft specifically to avoid the appearance of using taxpayer resources. That led to stories about him traveling at the expense of people who wanted favors from government, but he preferred that to the latter. As spokesman Ray Sullivan explained to The New York Times in 2011:
Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for Mr. Perry, defended the governor’s use of private planes, saying it was part of an effort to save tax dollars. Mr. Sullivan acknowledged “there are critiques to be made” about using state-owned versus private planes, but said “we chose to err on the side of protecting taxpayers.”
Trying to get an instant handle on what the state aircraft fleet cost these days is not easy. The budget the Legislature sent to Governor Greg Abbott has the fleet buried in the Department of Transportation Aviation Services budget of $168 million, but that also includes funding for improving local airports.
In fairness to Patrick, I haven’t tried to look at any other state official’s travel. And to note, legislators who fly personal aircraft to Austin on official business are eligible for reimbursement from the state. Whether Patrick plans to reimburse the state from his campaign fund or let the taxpayers foot the bill is irrelevant because the airplane is a perk of office and he seized the opportunity to use it.
State officials can easily make the argument that news conferences to talk about legislation are the official state business of an officeholder communicating with the people of Texas. It is just as eay to say it is part of a perpetual campaign and that Dan Patrick is no different from Ann Richards. Or, as Michael Quinn Sullivan said in Peggy’s story of several years ago: “It sure does raise the eyebrows and make the nose crinkle a bit.”