Gov. Steve Beshear took three planeloads of officials with him to Pike County on Thursday at a cost of more than $7,000 for the first stop in his six-week statewide tour of town-hall meetings.
That came just days after Beshear suggested ways state workers could conserve on fuel when commuting.
The trip's cost immediately drew criticism from political opponents who pointed to the state's budget crunch that Beshear and lawmakers have bemoaned all year. The administration defended the flights, saying they saved officials' time.
Beshear, joined by all but two of his Cabinet secretaries, presided over the meeting in the Eastern Kentucky town of Virgie to talk with constituents about issues and goals.
Three planes departed Frankfort's Capitol Airport between 4:09 p.m. and 4:44 p.m. Thursday bound for Pike County-Hatcher Field, according to data on the airplane tracking Web site FlightAware.com.
The governor and several aides traveled in Kentucky State Police's 11-seat Beechcraft King Air. More than a dozen others were split between another 11-seat King Air chartered from Air Lexington and an eight-seat Piper Navajo owned by the state's Transportation Cabinet.
The State Police King Air cost $1,320 for the 1.1 flight-hour round trip, said Lt. Phil Crumpton, state police spokesman. The agency just increased its rate July 10 from $925 per flight hour to $1,200 to keep pace with rising fuel costs.
Flying the state's Piper Navajo cost $1,294, while the bill for chartering the second King Air was $4,474, according to the governor's office.
That amounted to $7,088 for the three flights, not counting the cost of aides and state police shuttling the governor and Cabinet members to and from the airports and several other carloads of aides who drove three hours each way.
A 350-mile round trip between Frankfort and Virgie in a sport utility vehicle would cost about $100 worth of gasoline.
But Beshear's administration argued that flying to Pikeville ”saved 100 hours of work time, if not more“ for the governor and the 15 other officials who flew.
”Our goal with transportation to and from these events is to be as efficient as possible with both time and money,“ Beshear's press secretary Cathy Lindsey said in a statement. ”The decision to use air travel or cars depends upon what is most efficient and effective in terms of time and money.“
Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Len Peters, who flew in the Piper Navajo, said Beshear will probably take many top aides with him to the other 12 planned stops in the tour that is slated to end Aug. 20 in Paducah.
But Peters said the officials are likely to drive to many of the other events, such as the next stop in Somerset. He said officials will try to combine other business with the future town-hall meetings.
For instance, the governor's office announced Friday that Beshear will make a check presentation in Somerset before that 6 p.m. town-hall meeting Monday.
While the Beshear administration arrived en masse to the town-hall meeting, only the governor addressed the crowd and fielded questions. Cabinet secretaries interacted with attendees after the presentation, Peters said.
”I handled individual questions,“ Peters said. ”One individual wanted to talk about what he was trying to do with renewable (energy production) with a small start-up company. And another person did want to talk about some water-quality issues. Another person wanted to talk about natural-gas opportunities.“
Deciding to fly versus drive to future events will depend on calculating the cost of officials' time against that of the transportation, Peters said.
But Republican Party Chairman Steve Robertson questioned why the state paid for so many Cabinet officials to attend if they weren't part of the official program.
Robertson said taxpayers appear to be footing a $7,000 bill for one stop in what appears to be a public image-building tour.
Beshear ended this spring's General Assembly session with a 39 percent approval rating, according to a Herald-Leader-WKYT poll in May.
”This is ridiculous,“ Robertson said. ”The next time I hear the governor talking about the need for more revenue or rebuilding the state budget, I'm not going to listen.“
He suggested using video conferencing for Cabinet officials in Frankfort to participate in the forums.
Beshear's administration disagreed. ”The whole point of it is taking the government to the people,“ Lindsey said. ”It's a benefit for officials to hear and see for themselves what's really happening out around the state.“
Earlier in the week, Beshear held a press conference to announce allowing four-day work weeks for state employees and a Web site to encourage carpooling as ways to help ease commuting costs and conserve gasoline.
Republican state Rep. Bill Farmer of Lexington said paying that much for an in-state trip sends a bad message to constituents in tough economic times, especially when government spending is closely scrutinized.
”It might not be wrong. It might be the most efficient way time-wise. But the perception is not good,“ Farmer said.