Thursday, July 29, 2010

State Airplane Rides: Who Gets to Fly at Taxpayer Expense: Do You Sense a Cavalier Attitude Toward the Use of Your Money?

The Las Cruces Sun News today runs a story from KRQE News 13 in Albuquerque (click here for KRQE link to two stories on this by Larry Barker; the other story is called "Reduce State Aircraft Costs? What Memo?"), who has uncovered the frequent flyers on the state airplane during the middle of a serious recession in New Mexico.

According to Barker the most frequent flyers in the past four years are:
Johnny Cope, DOT Commissioner: Cost to Taxpayers: $241,063
Diane Denish: Lt. Governor: Cost to Taxpayers: $149,103
Bill Richardson: Governor: Cost to Taxpayers: $124,297
John Hummer: DOT Commissioner: Cost to Taxpayers: $105,420
Jim Franken: DOT Commissioner: Cost to Taxpayers: $47,713

The per-person cost for the governor is lower even though he used the plane more because he always travels with an entourage of staff and security.

But that leaves Johnny Cope, who owns his own airplane, and who is a strong fundraiser for Richardson as well as a member of the DOT (Highway Commission); Lt. Governor Diane Denish; John Hummer, owner of Steinborn Realty in Las Cruces, who served as chief cheerleader for raising taxes in Dona Ana County on behalf of the governor's pet project at the Spaceport; and Jim Franken, a banker from Las Vegas.

According to the Barker story Lt. Governor Diane Denish flew on state planes (the state has a fleet of three planes) 39 times in violation of state regulations that require cost-efficient use of aircraft. A spokesperson for her claims she was unaware of the state regulations and GSA Secretary Art Jaramillo claim the Lt. Governor is exempt from aircraft regulations. Barker questions this, saying there is no document that exempts the Lt. governor from the regulations. Whatever the case, she has not flown a state plane since January. Given the governor's many and lengthy absences from the state, requiring her to step in as governor, it is not surprising she would be using the plane with some frequency.

Cope, Hummer, and Franken are all members of the DOT (Highway) Commission, which makes decisions affecting hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts. It has often been reserved for wealthy fundraisers, and a kind of clubbish, self-important aura has tended to surround the job. Cope, in particular, fits the classic profile of a Highway commissioner, mainly a history of wealth and power (with a few shady elements in the past to add spice and intrigue) and very likeable. He has been a major contributor and fund raiser for Bill Richardson; his wife was appointed to the racing commission; he is the head of Amigos and went to Cuba with Richardson; he has a long history with Democrats, including Toney Anaya. I know of several politicians who caved into requests by Richardson, in spite of their better judgment, on the promise that Johnny Cope would offer a fund raiser. He owns an airplane in partnership with Congressman Harry Teague, which was loaned out to Richardson for his presidential campaign. Like I say, the classic profile of a Highway Commissioner.

Cope claims commissioners have traditionally been flown around the state at taxpayer expense and he was continuing the tradition. This is almost certainly true. But given the taxpayer funds expended to treat often already wealthy men like royalty, it is time to quit using "security" as an excuse to keep things secret. Perhaps it is time lawmakers required complete transparency about the use of the planes. Security issues are no longer relevant after the trip has been made, so that should not be an issue. In the past four years the state planes have cost taxpayers over $1.6 million. We have every right to know exactly what we got for that money.

Hummer, who lacks the stature of Cope, is quoted in the article as saying, "We have our own personal businesses and our personal lives and we donate our time and we commit our time to the state." Well, John, I've served on two gubernatorial boards, and never got more than mileage and per regular per diem expanses paid. I have as my business teaching university students, and I have my own personal life too, and I donate my time and commit my time to the state too. What makes you think your business, personal life, and time are more valuable to taxpayers than mine, John?


Anonymous said...

Dr Garcia, thanks for writing this story it is very eye opening and sad too. Here in Vado everytime it rains our roads get flooded. John Hummer and Richardson have done nothing to help us. John Hummer should step down for this position.

Anonymous said...

In spite of Larry Barker's report, one of the things to keep in mind is that in certain cases the state airplane can be more cost effective than other modes of travel. Taking all reimbursable travel costs and per diem into consideration, it may be less costly to taxpayers if several state officials going to the same place for state related business took the airplane instead of travel by auto. Maybe that's what the state regulations need to require: what is the less costly mode of travel? I'm not at all enamored with the Richardson admin, but as for the guv and lt. guv, (irrespective of party), they should be allowed to use the airplane for selected travel. One would hope they have enough to do as it is; afterall, they are the top elected officials of the state.

Jose Z. Garcia said...

I agree that the plane is needed, certainly for the governor and often for top state officials. The question is whether one set of officials--Highway commissioners close to the governor--should have greater access than others.