Chief of staff takes heat about governor’s travel expenses

By Jamie Hausman

JEFFERSON CITY – House members grilled the governor’s chief of staff, John Watson, Monday about the governor’s travel expenses. Members of the House Appropriations Committee on General Administration expressed concern after noting Nixon’s 2010 travel expenses were billed to several different departments and not to the governor.

Watson, however, said he was not prepared to answer questions about the governor’s travel budget, and was unable to estimate how much of the travel expenses were billed to other agencies in 2010. He told Rep. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, that he didn’t think the issue would come up in the meeting, and thus didn’t bring the expense records to the hearing. Silvey chairs the House Budget Committee that oversees the various appropriations committees of the House.

“When you have a governor who is thumping his chest about all the cuts he’s making in government, and then he turns around and travels quite extensively by anybody’s account, and bills it 100 percent to other people than himself, I think it’s a valid question,” Silvey said.

Silvey, backed by Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, also questioned the purpose of the governor’s travel when “not only is the governor’s office billing out part of these trips, they’re billing out the entire trip,” he said. “There is not one portion of the trips that I’ve seen that is billed to the governor’s travel line.”

Watson said Nixon’s travel expenses were consistent with those of recent former governors, but acknowledged the severity of the state’s current financial condition.

“I think the general discussion was the state working through the budget situation we’re in, these economic times we’re in,” Watson said. “We had to have a new approach to fiscal responsibility and all that [is] entailed. It was not just about travel expenses, but a whole host of things [and] ways we have to do business as a state…”

Watson assured committee members that the governor’s office will continue to make cuts during the next fiscal year.

In January, House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, and House Democratic Leader Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City, announced the legislature’s goal to crack down on the governor’s habit of billing his travel expenses to other departments.