Retiring state Rep. Joe Crabb, R-Atascocita, led all members of the Texas House in government-funded travel expenses in the last fiscal year, according to a Texas Tribune review of their expense reports.
Crabb, who has a medium-sized district about three hours from Austin, spent $48,400 — including $12,000 on mileage at a 50-cents-per-mile rate. He could not be reached for comment.
The reports, obtained from the state comptroller under the Texas Public Information Act, detail the costs accumulated by House members who must trek hundreds of miles to carry out their duties at the Capitol and around the state, even when the Legislature is not in session. How they choose to pay for these journeys is just as diverse as the state’s vast landscape.
The representatives, who receive a $7,200 annual salary, requested wildly different portions of the $1.7 million that the House dedicated to official travel in the last fiscal year. Fourteen spent more than $30,000; others requested no travel reimbursements, the reports show.
The reasons for the members’ spending patterns vary, depending on district size and proximity to Austin — and their views about whether to use taxpayer money.
“Every member is different,” says state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-River Oaks, the chairman of the House Administration Committee, which oversees travel.
Geren, who says Crabb often traveled to Austin, is one of at least 11 members of the House who devoted no taxpayer money for trips. "It’s just a personal preference," he says.
House rules stipulate that members can expense at least four round-trip flights a month and can collect a $168 per diem allotment when in Austin on business. The money pays for them to attend off-year committee hearings in Austin as well as conferences. It also finances trips inside their districts.
On average, they spent about $11,000 on mileage, lodging, incidentals, commercial flights and travel per diem in the last fiscal year.
“I burn up the roads,” says state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who spent roughly $5,000 in mileage driving around her district, which is among the largest in the state. “I have a very involved constituency.”
One might expect that, like Kolkhorst, representatives from big districts would seek more travel reimbursements from the state, or that those with the most remote districts would spend the most on airfare to fly to Austin. But many of the members topping the travel list represent smaller, urban or suburban districts that are relatively close to Austin.
Republicans on average spent more than their Democratic counterparts. But Democrats on average represent districts with less land area, according to an analysis of geographic data, and therefore presumably require shorter trips for state business. Democrats also are concentrated in urban areas that have airports and are relatively close to Austin.
Not all, though. State Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, represents the largest geographic district in Texas, stretching along the border from Hudspeth County near El Paso to Ulvalde, west of San Antonio. His spending ranked twelfth among House members.
State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, whose district is nearly 600 miles from the Capitol, ranked second, mostly from regular air travel between home and Austin. Pickett, who chairs the transportation committee, says he also flies around the state to meet with local elected officials about roads.
“I work more days that I can get reimbursed for,” he said in a phone interview from an airport.