Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin's travel expenses add up

Since taking office, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has spent $273K on trips, many promoting the state and attempting to lure business and jobs to the Sooner State.
by Phillip O'Connor Published: October 15, 2012
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She traveled to energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens' Texas ranch to relax, to Arizona for college football bowl games and Ireland for her daughter's wedding.


She flew to England to tout the state's aerospace industry, Detroit to lobby for compressed natural gas vehicles and Williamsburg, Va., where she was named the vice-chair of the National Governors Association.

Since taking office 21 months ago, Gov. Mary Fallin has spent more than $273,000 on travel paid for by taxpayers, an analysis by The Oklahoman has found. During that time, Fallin logged 56 trips, more than half of which were unrelated to state business.

Gov. Fallin's travel is drawing criticism from some who say it undermines her call for austerity in state government. Other critics say she needs to spend more time in Oklahoma tending to state business.

Wallace Collins, chairman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, noted that when President Barack Obama visited Oklahoma in March, Fallin was on a six-day family vacation in Puerto Rico.

“I don't remember a governor ever going on vacation during the legislative session. … That's a perfect example of superfluous travel,” Collins said. “Most people take care of business first and then the fun things come later.”

A request to interview the governor was declined, but a spokesman defended her travel, saying Fallin campaigned on a pledge to bring more and better jobs to Oklahoma.

“Aggressively marketing the state as a pro-business location is part of that agenda, and we think the results show that her efforts so far have been successful,” said spokesman Alex Weintz. “Getting companies from out of state to locate and stay in Oklahoma is a big deal and will continue to be, and to do that we think we've got to get the governor out of the office, out of Oklahoma City and to the places where these companies are and are meeting.”

Asked to name a business Fallin met in her travels that had subsequently relocated to Oklahoma, Weintz pointed to two meetings with Acciona Energy North America Corporation — once during a wind energy conference in California in May 2011 and another at the company's Chicago headquarters a few months later.

Acciona announced in May 2012 it would spend $550 million to build two wind farms in Oklahoma.

Also defending the governor's travel is the State Chamber and the affiliated Oklahoma Business Roundtable, a nonprofit group of more than 180 corporations and business organizations that supports economic development in the state. The Roundtable has provided Fallin an additional $60,000 in private funds to help subsidize her travel.

“The best messenger for any state, not just Oklahoma, is to have the chief executor — the governor — go out and talk about Oklahoma,” said Fred Morgan, president of the State Chamber. “Not all governors are willing to go on the road and promote their states.”

Morgan credited the Business Roundtable's current record membership to Fallin's travel promoting economic development.

Travel and use of state-funded planes by Oklahoma's governors long have drawn public scrutiny, from the flights of former Govs. Frank Keating and George Nigh to political events to those of former Gov.'s Brad Henry and David Walters to University of Oklahoma football games.

But in the eyes of one longtime observer of state politics, the issue is often much ado about nothing.

“Gubernatorial travel is only an issue for people not in the governor's party, period,” said OU political science professor Keith Gaddie. “This is a story that no one notices and is always brought up.”

Per diem rates

All state employees, including elected officials in the Legislature, are allocated a per diem rate, a preset amount of money the state will pay for expenses incurred each day on the road.

The per diem rate for lodging ranges from $81 per day in Oklahoma City to a peak season high of $295 per night in New York City. For meals and incidentals the rate is $66 in Oklahoma City and $71 for New York City.

The governor, her spouse, and her personal assistant, however, operate under a different set of rules.

A special state statute authorizes them for “reimbursement for all actual and necessary travel expenses incurred when on official business of the state.” Also included in that statue are the lieutenant governor and his or her spouse.

Receipts reviewed by The Oklahoman show Fallin, at times, is a frugal traveler. The governor frequently pays for her own meals, which often consist of fast food or other inexpensive fare.

On occasion, though, the governor has splurged, staying at luxury hotels and dining on room service meals. She and a staff member spent two nights each in $470 rooms at the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel in Southern California when Fallin spoke at Fortune magazine's Most Powerful Women's Conference.

The per diem rate for lodging in Orange County is $125 a night. No meals were charged to the state for that trip, however, according to records.

Plane costs, security

The Oklahoman determined the governor's travel costs with records collected from several different state agencies. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol tracks costs associated with security and use of a state plane. The governor's office tracks out-of-pocket spending for which the governor seeks reimbursement. And the state's Office of Management and Enterprise Services maintains bills issued on Fallin's state-issued credit card on which she and her staff have charged about $15,000 in travel expenses since taking office, mostly for meals and hotels.

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by Phillip O'Connor
Enterprise Editor
O'Connor joined the Oklahoman staff in June, 2012 after working at The Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a combined 28 years. O'Connor, an Oklahoma City resident, is a graduate of Kansas State University. He has written frequently...
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INTERACTIVE (click the image)

Interactive timeline and map of Governor Mary Fallin and former Governor Brad Henry's travels while in office with information on total expenses incurred to the Oklahoma tax payer and total time spent traveling during their terms.
Interactive timeline and map of Governor Mary Fallin and former Governor Brad Henry's travels while in office with information on total expenses incurred to the Oklahoma tax payer and total time spent traveling during their terms.

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