Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL070.PRB - The Aircraft of Missouri's Governors«MDNM»
What is it about planes and travel that make Missouri governors willing to risk so much to get out of the governor's office?
Our state has a long history of governors getting themselves in trouble because of planes and travel -- even for the travel expenses of their food.
The latest controversy arose after lawmakers discovered the state administration had spent $5.6 million to purchase a new, large plane for the fleet of aircraft available for Gov. Jay Nixon's travel.
Previously, Nixon had come under legislative fire for his frequent out-of-office travel in which other agencies were billed for the costs.
In 2011, administration records showed that the governor had billed other state agencies nearly $400,000 for more than 350 trips he had taken during his first two years in office.
Nixon is not the first governor to come under attack for taxpayer-funded travel.
In his 2004 primary campaign for re-election, Gov. Bob Holden came under intense attack for taking more than 300 taxpayer-financed aircraft trips while, at the same time, cutting funding for education by more than $100 million.
In just the first six months in office, reports emerged that Holden already had spent $80,000 of government funds for travel.
Like Nixon, Holden billed other state agencies for some of the costs for his travel.
Claire McCaskill made those stories a major issue in her successful campaign to defeat Holden in the Democrat primary in 2000. As state auditor, she earlier had issued a report highly critical of Holden's practices to off-load his travel costs to other agencies.
Holden's successor, Matt Blunt, tried to avoid the problem simply by flying on private aircraft funded by private donations. But he still did not escape criticism because by flying on private flights, there were no public records as to where the governor was being taken. They effectively became secret trips.
Years earlier, Gov. Joe Teasdale got into hot water for the traveling expenses born by taxpayers for his food.
Teasdale would spend time in his hometown of Kansas City. But he still got to dine on meals prepared by his staff at the Governor's Mansion in Jefferson City.
To get those meals, he had the Highway Patrol drive the prepared food from the mansion to Kansas City. "Meals on Wheels" was the caustic term used in one newspaper account to describe the practice.
Earlier, Teasdale had been blasted for "Meet the Governor" sessions held around the state on taxpayer expense that Republican critics charged were thinly disguised political events.
Defenders of governors and even some from the opposition parties, argue that the state's top executive needs to get around the state to meet with citizens. While criticizing the recent high-end aircraft purchase done without legislative oversight, Senate Appropriations Chair Kurt Schaefer defended Nixon's travels.
"I think the governor should be the number one cheerleader for the state of Missouri and I think the governor should be all over the state as much as he can to promote economic development, public education and everything else," Schaefer said to his Senate colleagues.
Missouri's state Constitution actually has a provision designed to keep those trips within the state.
The provision strips the governor of both the powers and the salary of the office whenever the governor leaves the state.
That provision had been a source of significant governmental friction when Democrat Teasdale was governor and Republican Bill Phelps was lieutenant governor in the late 1970s.
Teasdale would keep his travel plans secret from Phelps. It caused Phelps once to threaten to take over the governor's office if Teasdale would not disclose his location.
Missouri's Supreme Court subsequently put the issue to rest. The court held that the constitutional provision came from an era when out-of-state travel significantly impaired the governor's ability to govern because of limited interstate communications technology.
But the court's interpretation may not have been entirely accurate. The late Sen. Dick Webster once told me about a conversation he had with one of the delegates to the state constitutional convention that wrote the document adopted in 1945.
Webster said the delegate told him they kept that provision stripping the governor of the powers and salary of office because they were frustrated with the increasing amounts of time Missouri governors were spending politicking out of state at the growing number of national and regional governmental associations.
If Webster's story is correct, it would seem that this wanderlust of Missouri governors has been an issue for quite a few decades of our state's history.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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