Gov. Rick Perry was near the height of his popularity when he barnstormed California in September to raise money for his presidential bid and to participate in his first nationally televised debate.
His state-provided security guards were flying pretty high, too, spending more than $32,000 in taxpayer money for travel and lodging in San Francisco, $4,400 to dine near the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum in Simi Valley, and another $6,400 for
plane tickets to San Diego, records show.
In the ensuing weeks, Perry would see his political fortunes plummet, falling to as low as 6 percent in public opinion polls from a high of 32 percent. But the bills for his omnipresent security detail continue,
costing taxpayers as much as $400,000 a month.
Aside from President Obama, Perry — the only sitting governor in the 2012 race — has the largest security contingent, and apparently the only one on the Republican side financed by taxpayers.
Weeks before he officially announced his presidential bid, Perry said it was appropriate for the Texas Department of Public Safety to pay for his security and called any criticism of his government-provided protection a “diversion.” He also said
that Texans would benefit from his travels.
“I’m going to be promoting Texas,” Perry said in July, as he began to traverse the country. “I’m going to be traveling to places where the Texas story needs to be told, and we will tell it.”
State Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston, leader of the House Democrats, said Perry’s travels have b
een more of a black eye for Texas than a benefit. She said the governor deserves to have state-provided security but said he should use some of the $17 million he has reported raising for his campaign to help defray the costs.
“If he’s promoting Texas, he’s been an embarrassment,” Farrar said. “He could have paid for this out of campaign funds, especially given that he’s asked the Texas taxpayers to tighten their belts. “
Perry is not the only Texas governor to run up big bills — and receive criticism — for security provided on out-of-state trips. When former Gov. George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, the state spent at least $400,000 a month in the first quarter of that year — more than four times the amount spent in all of 1999, the public safety department revealed at the time.
All told, taxpayers were on the hook for $3.9 million in security costs for Bush and his family from January 1999 to March 2000, when the Secret Service took over the job, the public safety department said.
Even then, the department resisted giving out detailed breakdowns of security spending, saying that it would compromise the governor’s safety. But now a veil of secrecy has descended over the security spending records, making it difficult to estimate even the raw totals.
Available records show that spending on out-of-state travel has skyrocketed since Perry began crisscrossing the nation in pursuit of the Republican nomination.
Online reports from Comptroller Susan Combs show that the public safety department has spent more on out-of-state trips from September to mid-December of this year — more than $1.4 million — than it did in the entire 2011 fiscal year, when it spent $1.1 million.
The public safety department said last week that the governor’s security for out-of-state trips cost $486,904 in
fiscal year 2011. A department spreadsheet shows that the agency spent more than $397,000 to protect the governor on trips in a single month, between Sept. 5 and Sept. 28 this year.
That included $161,786 for airfare, $8,140 for baggage fees, $50,648.84 for food, $6,442.24 for fuel, $112,111.81 for lodging, $54,356.65 for rentals, $2,990.26 for parking and $1,238.57 in an unspecified “other” category.
There is no category or amount listed in the spreadsheet for overtime pay, which generally increase during out-of-state road trips.
News media outlets, including The Texas Tribune, have tried repeatedly
to get spending vouchers from the trips under state open records laws. The Legislature finally stepped in earlier this year, passing a compromise law that requires the agency to release quarterly summaries of the amounts — including breakdowns for food, lodging and other expenses — but not to release the actual vouchers for 18 months.
That will keep any detailed disclosures of Perry’s security expenses out of the public eye until after the 2012 election.
Keith Elkins, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said he was not convinced that showing vouchers for travel that has already occurred could put an elected official in harm’s way.
“If the costs are legitimate because of the times that we live in, in a post-9/11 world, I can accept that argument,” Elkins said. “Just let me know what taxpayers are spending money on.”
Perry appears to be the only candidate with a government-provided security detail. The Tribune contacted all of the other major presidential campaigns about their security arrangements, and nearly all said their candidate had no taxpayer-financed guards. The campaigns of Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum, former government officials running lean campaigns and struggling in polls, did not respond to the inquiry.
Perry usually dives into crowds to shake hands and meet voters no matter what his guards are doing, but his large security contingent has sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. In an October trip to a chili festival in Manchester, N.H., one of Perry’s sharp-elbowed guards got into a shouting match with a reporter, and some cook-off participants later complained to the city’s mayor, Ted Gatsas, a prominent supporter of Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
“The people need to be able to ask you questions, they like to get a picture with you, they like to shake hands with you,” Gatsas said. “As soon as you enter into a venue like the Chili Fest with as many people that are there and you’ve got security guards all around you, it sometimes makes it very difficult for people. And I think that’s the one thing I heard during that campaign when he was up here.”