JEFFERSON CITY | Gov. Matt Blunt has started flying on state planes at taxpayer expense — something he shunned for his first three years in office while generally chartering private planes with campaign money.
Blunt began regularly boarding state planes for gubernatorial business after he announced Jan. 22 that he will not seek re-election this year. He was the most frequent passenger on state planes in the month following that announcement, according to flight records provided to The Associated Press in response to an open-records request.
Those records show Blunt embarked on five days of multi-stop flyarounds on state aircraft from Jan. 31 through the end of February at a cost of $9,832.50. Since then, Blunt has continued to use state planes, though details on the cost weren't immediately available Wednesday.
By comparison, Blunt's campaign spent more than $94,000 on private airplane flights during the final three months of 2007, according to finance reports filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission.
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Blunt spokesman Nanci Gonder said the governor started using state planes because he is no longer a political candidate.
"We had erred on the side of caution, so there would be no appearance the state plane was being used for political purposes," Gonder said. Because Blunt is no longer a candidate, that appearance is gone, she added.
But the appearance of misusing state property for political purposes was not the only reason Blunt's office cited in March 2005 when it first explained to the AP why he was opting for private planes.
"The governor doesn't believe it's appropriate to use the state plane given the state's current fiscal situation," Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson said at the time.
Missouri's finances have improved since then, although there is renewed concern about an again faltering national economy.
As recently as last year, Blunt defended his practice of using campaign money to fund official flights on private planes.
"I think the way we do it is a responsible way to respect taxpayers and ensure that their resources aren't spent on any sort of political activity," Blunt said in an AP story last September.
State law allows elected officials to use campaign funds for official business such as travel. Officials do not have to be running for re-election to tap into a campaign account for businesses purposes, said Joe Carroll, the campaign finance director at the Missouri Ethics Commission.
Blunt's campaign still had millions of dollars on hand, as of its January report, though some of that money needed to be refunded to donors.
The governor's spokeswoman suggested the campaign might not have been able to afford to pay for Blunt's official flights through the rest of his term, which ends in January 2009.
"We saved the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars by using non-state planes paid for with campaign dollars," Gonder said. But "we are obviously winding the campaign down, and that's no longer a resource."
Democrats had criticized Blunt for paying for flights with campaign funds, because campaign finance reports do not require details on when the flights were taken, where they went or who rode along. All of those details are tracked when state aircraft are used.
For example, the flight records provided to the AP show Blunt was accompanied Feb. 28 by Deputy Chief of Staff John Russell when he flew on a state King Air to St. Louis for an announcement about a new Mississippi River bridge and to Cape Girardeau, Caruthersville and Kennett for news conferences about courthouse restoration grants.
Democratic Party spokesman Jack Cardetti called Blunt's decision to use state aircraft a welcome change, because it provides more public transparency on his travel. But Cardetti remained skeptical of the reason for the switch.
"As a lame-duck governor, it looks like Governor Blunt doesn't have lobbyists to fly him around any more," Cardetti said.