This summer, as the state government readied another round of budget cuts, including worker furloughs and Medicaid reductions, Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer and three top aides took an eight-day trip to a Caribbean luxury resort that cost taxpayers more than $10,000, according to a review of state travel records.
They attended the annual meeting of the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture, or SASDA, on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Participants stayed at The Buccaneer hotel, a pink beachfront resort recently named one of the "Top Ten Classic Caribbean Hotels."
The meeting agenda lists about 13 hours of business sessions and an agricultural tour over the three days, June 23-25. But records show that Farmer's delegation arrived June 21 and departed June 28. It took advantage of optional events sponsored by the association, including golf outings, a visit to a rum distillery and a tour of the historic town of Christiansted.
Farmer declined to speak directly to a Herald-Leader reporter, designating his spokesman, Bill Clary to answer all questions.
Next year, Farmer ends his eight-year stint as agriculture commissioner. He will run as a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor on a slate with Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville.
While some states that are members of the association decided because of budget concerns to forgo this year's trip, Farmer took Rodman Craig Maffet, his chief of staff; John Roberts, executive director of consumer and environmental protection; and Robert Stout, the state veterinarian. The four men also brought their wives.
Clary said the four men paid for their wives' travel and charged the state for their own airfare, hotel rooms, food, registration and other related expenses. Farmer personally paid for a $100 "health spa treatment," plus a $20 tip, that appeared on his hotel bill, Clary said.
Receipts submitted after the trip show that the group enjoyed fine dining at public expense. A typical dinner included $32 plates of seared yellowfin tuna with lime ginger soy sauce and coconut rice, with a $10 slice of banana cheesecake for dessert.
Farmer handed $10 tips to drivers, bellhops, front-desk attendants and others throughout his stay, later charging them to his expense account at the state Department of Agriculture. He also charged $50 baggage fees going to and returning from the trip.
Despite the austerity measures ordered across state government, Clary said Farmer was comfortable with the trip's expense. Attendees discussed issues facing state agriculture officials, such as the farm bill in Congress, he said.
"He was cognizant when he went that there might be some people who later question it," Clary said. "But the commissioner goes to this every year because he believes it's important. He is a past president of this organization and believes that the networking with his peers is useful to him."
The association represents the agriculture departments of 15 states — from Texas to Maryland — and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Its annual meetings are held on the home turf of its current president, Clary said. This year, that was Louis Petersen Jr. of the Virgin Islands.
Some stayed home
Not all of the states who are association members sent representatives to this year's meeting, given spending cuts at home, said Bob Ehart, public policy director at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, which is SASDA's parent organization.
"A few of our states, because of budgetary concerns, did not travel down there," Ehart said. "Some of our agriculture commissioners have self-imposed spending restrictions on travel, or else their governors have issued restrictions."
Mississippi was one such no-show.
"Due to our budget situation, it just wasn't an option. We have to watch what we spend," said Andy Prosser, spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce.
Last year, SASDA met in Oklahoma City. Travel records indicate that Farmer and the same three aides stayed for five days in Oklahoma City and spent about half as much money as they did during their eight days in the Virgin Islands this year.
Farmer's delegation came early to St. Croix and stayed late so the four men could have informal time talking with counterparts from other states, Clary said.
"A lot more is learned in the networking than in the general sessions," Clary said.
Running for a new office
Next year, when Williams and Farmer run on a Republican ticket for governor and lieutenant governor, their campaign's call for "a smaller, leaner government" might lose some credibility if they're not sharing in the same austerity as the rest of the state, said Don Gross, a University of Kentucky political scientist.
In August, the Herald-Leader reported that Farmer had spent about $445,000 buying 19 new vehicles for his department — including a $35,340 car for his own use, replacing a 2-year-old vehicle — while the rest of state government dramatically cut back on such purchases.
In 2008, the newspaper reported that Williams was planning a $448,997 upgrade of Senate offices at the state Capitol in Frankfort, following on an earlier $639,000-round of renovations that included the installation of a 60-inch plasma-screen television in Williams' office. Williams shelved the 2008 work after the plans became public, facing election-year criticism from lawmakers in his own party.
This year, at least, voters are angry at political incumbents and feeling personally poor, Gross said.
"The danger for the David Williams-Richie Farmer ticket is how much they talk about the need to cut state spending," Gross said. "That opens them to charges of hypocrisy when voters say, 'But, wait, you spent all this public money on trips to the Caribbean and new cars for yourself. Why should I take you seriously?'"
"Ten thousand dollars isn't necessarily a lot of money for state government, which deals in the many millions of dollars," he said. "But it's a lot of money to most of us. The average Kentucky voter would love to have that much money for their own Caribbean vacation."