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.
More than 90 percent ($256,000) of the cost associated with Fallin's taxpayer-supported travel is for use of the state plane (see sidebar) and the Highway Patrol security details who, by state policy, accompany Fallin whenever she goes on the road. By comparison, Gov. Henry, Fallin's Democratic predecessor, spent $295,000 in such costs during his last 24 months in office.
Those figures include only the tickets, meals and lodging for the security personnel and not their payroll costs. The Department of Public Safety refused to release such records or the amount of compensatory time accrued by troopers saying it could compromise security by enabling someone to determine the number of people assigned to any given detail (see sidebar).
The $273,000 figure also does not include the hotel and other costs incurred by staff members who frequently accompany Fallin on the road, which accounts for about another $6,000 in taxpayer-covered expenses.
Some of Fallin's trips have raised eyebrows in the Capitol and drawn public criticism on social media blogs and discussion boards.
In June 2011, Fallin spent a week in Ireland for her daughter's now annulled marriage. The trip cost taxpayers $13,300 to send a security detail.
One of her most expensive trips was to the OU and Oklahoma State University bowl games following the 2011 football season.
Her trip on the state plane to Phoenix and then on to Las Vegas cost $15,700, including a one-night stay for $240 in The Buttes Marriott Resort and a $172 meal at Top of the Rock, a restaurant at the resort. Her husband accompanied her on the trip.
Fallin's leisure travel to destinations such as the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and Las Vegas came at a time when she was encouraging state residents to vacation in Oklahoma.
“One of the things that can help boost our budget, boost our economy in Oklahoma is tourism and travel,” Fallin said at a news conference last year touting so-called “staycations.”
In other instances, such as when Fallin travels on political business, some of her costs are picked up by others. For example, when she traveled to Charlotte, N.C., during the Democratic Convention last month, the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney paid for the commercial airfare for the governor and an aide, their lodging and that of her security detail. The trip still cost Oklahoma taxpayers about $1,700 for security airfare, meals and car rental among other things.
Fallin also has tapped her campaign fund to pay for some travel. According to campaign finance reports filed with the state Ethics Commission, Fallin and her staff have used about $3,000 from campaign funds for travel since she took office, mostly for a Republican Governor's Association meeting in Orlando in November.
On an unknown number of trips, the Roundtable has helped pick up part of the tab, to the tune of $60,000. The group declined to make available a detailed account of those expenses, but a Fallin aide said most of that money went to pay for meals and entertainment involving the governor and business prospects, whom he declined to identify.
“I think the taxpayers have the right to know why the governor is there and what she's doing, which is meeting with business and trying to bring and retain jobs in Oklahoma,” Weintz said. “As far as which companies we're meeting with and who in those companies we're meeting with, often that's sensitive because we're competing with other states to attract businesses to Oklahoma and we don't want to be seen as poaching business from other states and other countries. There's sometimes a public interest in discretion as well.”
Fallin's travels began within days of her inauguration, when she flew to visit Pickens' Pampa, Texas, ranch. Less than a month later, she made the first of six trips to meetings conducted by the National Governors Association, which covers some of her costs.
Home at Grand Lake
By far, her most trips were to Grand Lake, where Fallin and her husband, Wade Christensen, bought a new home in July 2011. Records show she traveled there 21 times, always on weekends (see sidebar).
The governor has used the state plane four times at a cost of roughly $1,200 a trip to fly to Grand Lake for one day before flying on to other locations for state business from Grand Lake.
Christensen has accompanied Fallin on several trips, including to a Governors Association meeting in Washington where he flew in for one night to accompany her to a White House dinner.
It was one of eight trips Fallin has taken to Washington since taking office. Other destinations have included New York three times, Chicago, Dallas, Orlando, Salt Lake City and the Bahamas, a personal trip on which the state plane was used at a cost of $7,800.
Fallin's hectic travel schedule sometimes has her out of the state or on vacation for more than two weeks a month. Still, she's taken far fewer trips than some previous governors. Nigh, for example, made 124 trips on state planes in 1982, most to destinations within the state.
Weintz, Fallin's spokesman, emphasized that overall, Fallin's office budget is the smallest for a governor since 2001. Because economic development is a top priority, more of that smaller budget has been allotted for travel.
The governor's office budget was about $2 million in 2012 and $2.2 million this fiscal year. Previous Oklahoma governors' budgets during the past eight years have ranged from $2.5 million to $2.9 million, records show.
Fallin leaves this week for Europe, where she will lead a delegation of northeastern Oklahoma business and civic leaders. The Oklahoma Business Roundtable will cover the cost of airfare and lodging for the governor and her staff members.