Kansas taxpayers have been picking up the tab for state officials and legislators to fly in the state-owned executive aircraft to attend out-of-state sports events and take trips with family and friends, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Government officials appear to have no qualms about their own travel in the state's nine-passenger Raytheon King Air 350, despite Kansas' budget crunch that has led the governor to criticize schools for spending too much and lawmakers in the GOP-majority Statehouse to accuse poor people of spending welfare money on cruises.
Using open records requests to obtain daily flight logs, emails, schedules and other materials to piece together the plane's usage from Jan. 1, 2015, to March 24 of this year, the AP found state officials often mixed political, religious and family interests with state business on government excursions.
Among those travels is an 834-mile, one-day trip that Gov. Sam Brownback took to Memphis, Tennessee, on Jan. 2 to watch the Liberty Bowl contest between Kansas State University and Arkansas. He took his wife, son, his three daughters, two sons-in-law and infant granddaughter on the trip, which cost $1,251.
The Republican governor also flew on the plane at a cost of $465 to attend a NCAA tournament game in Omaha, Nebraska, between the University of Kansas and Wichita State on March, 22, 2015. Traveling with him were a couple friends, as well as Republican state Senate President Susan Wagle and state Rep. Gene Suellentrop and their spouses. When cameras zoomed in on Brownback during the game, the crowd booed him; it was aired on national television, prompting Twitter backlash over his underfunding of Kansas' universities.
"Kansas Governors have long attended sporting events of Kansas teams as part of their official duties and have used the state aircraft for travel to those events," Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said in an email. "There is no additional expense incurred by the State when other Kansans are on the plane for an official trip with the Governor."
Kansas has a statute that specifically allows the governor to use the plane for personal or political travel as long as he reimburses the state, but it mentions no other state agencies. The governor has not taken any reimbursable trips, as he typically uses commercial air travel when conducting personal and political business, Hawley said.
The Kansas Highway Patrol flies the plane and bills the state agency that uses the plane. KHP Capt. Greg Kayser said there are no specific guidelines as to who can be brought onboard as passengers or where the plane can go, adding "that is on them."
The most frequent flyers on the executive aircraft are:
-Brownback, who is tops with more than 17,348 miles during the 15-month period examined by AP. His trips are mostly ceremonial: groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting events, community meetings, business announcements and tours as well as visits to government agencies. But his schedule also shows he often meets with pastor groups across the state while traveling on government business.
-Transportation Secretary Mike King racked up 6,247 miles, which his office says was used to travel to speaking events, groundbreaking ceremonies for highway projects and staff meetings across the state.
-Agriculture Secretary Jackie McClaskey has flown 5,460 miles, much of it for travel with various staff members to western Kansas to attend water meetings and other agriculture-related events. Flying saved time and prevented overnight stays, her office noted.
-Secretary of State Kris Kobach has flown 4,350 miles, including flights to promote voter ID efforts outside of Kansas and to speak at Republican Party events across the state. He often includes on-site visits to county election officials that coincide with political functions. Kobach says that his office is funded by fees paid by regulated businesses, not taxes, and the other events while traveling on state business did not cost extra.
"The state plane ... is an important tool to get around in a big state," said Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat. "But it should be for a public purpose."