Fiscal conservatives?

When the 2011 gubernatorial race heats up, you can bank on the slate of state Senate President David Williams and Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer talking up their fiscal conservatism creds from the Big Sandy to the Big Muddy. In this era of the Tea Party movement assuming dominance within the Republican Party, it's a rhetorical must.

"I am a Tea Partier," Williams recently told the University of Kentucky Law School Federalist Society, in his best imitation of the late John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" declaration.

Trouble is, Williams and Farmer both have somewhat checkered pasts when it comes to fiscal conservatism vis-a-vis profligate spending of tax dollars.

Farmer has provided several recent examples, the latest coming when he awarded merit raises to 11 of his staffers in the Department of Agriculture at a time of massive revenue shortfalls that have caused cost-of-living raises to be frozen and forced the imposition of six furlough days on workers in the executive branch of state government.

Farmer's spokesman, Bill Clary, justified the raises by saying the department's shrinking work force had resulted in some employees taking on extra duties.

Well, welcome to the economic here and now, when the same can be said about workers — both public and private — throughout the nation, including hundreds if not thousands in state government.

Clary's excuse about extra duties was as lame as the "saving money on good fleet maintenance" one he gave for Farmer's habit of ordering new vehicles whenever the department's existing ones lose their new car smell. This year's cost to taxpayers for the department's "good fleet maintenance" is now about $621,000 for 27 new vehicles.

Too bad none of those vehicles could float or fly to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It might have resulted in some savings in the more than $10,000 Farmer and three aides racked up in an eight-day excursion in that little piece of paradise this past summer.

Ostensibly, the reason for the trip was the annual meeting of the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture. However, the business sessions of the SASDA meeting took up just three days. The rest was optional.

But hey, let's not single out the No. 2 man on this ticket for engaging in free-spending ways. Williams has been known to loosen up the public purse with questionable justification, as well.

For instance, he and House Speaker Greg Stumbo signed off on more than $135,000 in expenses to send 63 legislators, legislative staffers and state police to the 2009 National Conference of State Legislatures meeting in Philadelphia.

In 2008, during another lean budget year when most state workers were getting a 1 percent pay raise, Williams cast his vote of approval for giving Legislative Research Commission Director Bobby Sherman a 47 percent salary increase, bumping up his earnings from $132,840 a year to $195,000.

And we mustn't forget a 2006 renovation of the office space for 11 Republican senators, including Williams, that cost $639,000 and featured a $17,000 entertainment center with a 60-inch plasma TV in Williams' office.

Williams-Farmer, the slate of fiscal conservatives? Well, maybe not so much.