U.S. Rep. Andy Barr spent more than $190,000 in taxpayer money to send mail and conduct telephone town hall meetings with constituents in his first 15 months in office, according to congressional records.
Barr's spending on taxpayer-funded communications is more than 10 times that of U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Bowling Green, who has Kentucky's second-highest tally.
Overall, a Herald-Leader analysis found that Barr's spending on franked communications, in which members of Congress use their signature as postage or to authorize electronic contacts, ranks him 26th among 437 representatives in the U.S. House for which data was available from January 2013 to March 2014. Barr has used taxpayer money to reach constituents more than 9 million times since taking office, which is nearly 15 times more than any other Kentucky congressman.
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Each contact cost taxpayers about two 2 cents, a rate in the lowest quarter of lawmakers who spent money on franked communications.
Elisabeth Jensen, the Democrat challenging Barr this year in Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District, hopes to make Barr's use of taxpayer-funded communications an issue in this fall's campaign. On Monday, as she opened her Lexington campaign office, Jensen signed a pledge promising not to use franking and several other "wasteful perks" if she is elected.
The $192,910 Barr has spent on franking is "far more than hard-working Kentucky families should have to pay, and that does not in any way seem to be an example of efficiency in government," said Allan Rivlin, Jensen's campaign manager.
Catherine Gatewood, a spokeswoman for Barr, defended the expenditures, saying that franked communication has helped Barr represent his constituents and advocate on their behalf.
"Thanks to these outreach efforts, our office has been able to assist over 2,300 constituents with cases pertaining to federal agencies in Andy's first 18 months in office," Gatewood said.
Barr also said he returned more than $50,000 of his office budget last year to the Treasury and spent $300,000 less on personnel than his predecessor, Democrat Ben Chandler.
Barr has sent out five mass mailings. Four follow a standard format, each featuring a picturesque scene of Central Kentucky and photo of Barr with the caption "serving all of the people of Kentucky's Sixth Congressional District." The mailers contain short messages about work Barr is doing, and small sections for information about "Constituent Services" and "Assistance with Federal Bureaucracy." They also feature a constituent survey, asking about issues such as the Affordable Care Act, taxes, gun-ownership rights and immigration.
The fifth mailer, sent over the Memorial Day weekend, is a letter that voices support for the military and tells the story of Cpl. Bill McMillan of Lexington, who was killed in Iraq in 2008. Barr also spends a paragraph informing constituents about his Sixth District Veterans Coalition.
While federal law prohibits campaign information from being distributed in franked communications, opponents of the practice, including Jensen, say they are often "campaign-style communications" used as a tool to get name recognition.
A 2011 study by the independent Congressional Management Foundation found that freshman lawmakers spend far more on franking than their colleagues who have been in office longer. The study found that freshman members spent an average of $101,764 in 2010, compared to $46,805 for third-term members.