While former Gov. Rick Perry moves around the country nourishing his presidential ambition, Texas taxpayers can breathe a sigh of relief: They’re finally off the hook for the expenses associated with his vast out-of-state travels.
But the bills from his jet-setting days as governor are still rolling in, and they show the state had to pay about $1 million a year on average to transport, feed and house his security detail from the time Perry began running for the GOP presidential nomination in 2011 until he left office earlier this year. The food bill alone over that period exceeded $600,000.
A Republican state legislator, Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio, wants to ensure this doesn’t happen again. On Wednesday, he argued in a state House committee for legislation that would require elected officials to reimburse the treasury for any out-of-state travel costs that aren’t related to “official state business" — including those stemming from security.
“I think you lead by example,” Larson said. “If you’re going to have conservative government, but you’ve got a security detail, and travel expenses for that security detail [are] picked up by the state, and it’s strictly political activity, there's no value for the state. Then they should reimburse regardless of what party affiliation.”
Larson, who tried to pass the bill last session but encountered blowback from Perry over the wording of it, said he’s not singling out the longest-serving governor in Texas history.
He noted that former Gov. George W. Bush, whose state security spending hit about $4 million while he was running for president in 1999 and 2000, along with his Democratic predecessor, Ann Richards, both spent a lot of time outside Texas attending events that were not always official state business.
“It has been something that we’ve seen over the last couple of decades. There’s been abuses,” Larson said. “I think it’s time that we close that loophole. If you’re going to go out and you’re going to travel for political reasons, then you need to reimburse the state.”
Incomplete quarterly spending reports from the Texas Department of Public Safety show the direct cost of deploying Perry’s security detail from late 2011 until late last year has reached $3.4 million. That doesn’t count overtime costs or expenditures from all the trips earlier in his tenure as governor — including expensive jaunts to Europe, the Caribbean and Asia.
Citing security concerns, the department still considers any actual invoices to be a state secret. That's despite legislative efforts to make those records available 18 months after the expenses were incurred as way to ensure the information couldn’t be used to harm a protected official.
The department is required, however, to provide regular reports on the broad categories of the security expenditures, and for the first time the agency released the information to The Texas Tribune in a searchable spreadsheet, making it easier to calculate totals and highlight the biggest single expenditures.
All told, from September 2011 through November of last year, taxpayers shelled out $1.6 million for travel, $780,000 for lodging, $665,000 for food and $80,000 for fuel. Another $240,000 was spent on “other,” a category with no explanation or itemization. The expenses were highest while Perry was on the road running for president in late 2011.
One of the department spreadsheets said travel costs included “airfare, rental car, taxi, mileage, baggage and tolls.” But the agency refused Tuesday to give any explanation for “other” expenses, which were generally higher in foreign locations than in the United States.
Ditto for the food. The data shows the four highest bills for grub all occurred on foreign soil: $13,295 for food at an economic development trip to Lake Como, Italy, in 2012; $12,750 to eat during a trade mission to Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2013; $12,689 for chow while looking for World War II-era soldiers listed as missing in action over the Republic of Palau, a western Pacific island, last year; and $11,673 to fill up in Beijing on an economic development trip in 2014.
The costs for the last couple of months of Perry’s tenure weren’t available in the most recent spreadsheets provided by the department, and officials there could not give expenditures for overtime as of Tuesday afternoon, so the final tab will grow higher.
Perry is preparing for another run for president and is expected to announce his intentions in May or June. Asked why the state was paying for expenses associated with the former governor's travel on political trips outside the state's borders, his spokeswoman, Lucy Nashed, said:
"For 14 years, Rick Perry was governor of Texas no matter where he went. The Department of Public Safety has a policy of providing security for governors and their families everywhere they travel, as they have for several administrations. It's unfortunate that we live in a world where security is an issue, but Gov. Perry appreciated the men and women who protected him and his family during his service to our state."
Perry’s fondness for travel — often to exotic locations — has been a running theme for opponents since the former West Texas farmer ran for lieutenant governor in 1998. That year, Democrat John Sharp ran a critical TV ad that tagged Perry as “travelin’ man” and criticized him for out-of-state trips taken at state expense.
“As a legislator and state official, Rick Perry's been a travelin' man,” said the ad, which showed an airplane’s shadow over the Texas Capitol. “From pricey hotels in Europe to four-star resorts back east, Perry's traveled more than any other state official — at our expense.’’
A 2010 opposition research book prepared by Perry’s Democratic opponents — published by the Huffington Post just as his presidential campaign was hitting the skids in 2012 — put Perry’s “lavish lifestyle” as No. 7 on a top 10 list of vulnerabilities, and The Dallas Morning News reported in 2007 that Perry had visited "a dozen countries in the past three years, breaking all records for foreign travel by Texas governors."
Under Larson’s bill, House Bill 159, future governors and other traveling officeholders would have to submit regular reports to the Texas Ethics Commission detailing the purpose for any out-of-state travel and whether state-provided security was used.
The bill says that if the commission determines the elected official is doing something other than the state's business, the official "shall reimburse the state for the cost of the travel plus interest calculated at a rate equal to inflation."