Politics & Government

Brownback, House speaker used state-owned plane to see Jayhawks in Final Four

The Kansas Jayhawks team gathered at the beginning of the Monday's NCAA men's National Championship basketball game against the Kentucky Wildcats at the Superdome in New Orleans, La, on April 2, 2012. SHANE KEYSER/The Kansas City Star
The Kansas Jayhawks team gathered at the beginning of the Monday's NCAA men's National Championship basketball game against the Kentucky Wildcats at the Superdome in New Orleans, La, on April 2, 2012. SHANE KEYSER/The Kansas City Star The Kansas City Star

Gov. Sam Brownback and a short list of guests flew on a state-owned plane to St. Louis and New Orleans to see the Kansas Jayhawks play in the NCAA Tournament.

The flights cost taxpayers about $3,000. Any other expenses for security or guests were not immediately clear.

House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, and his wife, Cindy, who is an aide to another House Republican, accompanied Brownback and first lady Mary Brownback on both trips.

Others on the March 31 trip to the Final Four in New Orleans included U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder and his wife, Brooke; Brownback’s chief of staff, David Kensinger; Gerard Goulon, a family friend; and security detail Damon Carlton, according to Brownback’s office. The one-way flight cost $1,049. Kensinger and Goulon didn’t take the return flight on April 3, which also cost $1,049.

Brownback’s office said that the governor and Kensinger had no other travel expenses filed for the four-day outing, according to a response to an open records request filed by The Eagle.

The March 25 flight to and from St. Louis for the Elite Eight cost $888, and no other expenses were filed for the governor’s office. Brownback’s three children and a family friend accompanied the Brownbacks and O’Neals on that flight.

Christie Kriegshauser, O’Neal’s chief of staff, said O’Neal is a huge Jayhawks fan and watches every game. The O’Neals paid for their expenses but not for the flight, she said. “It was a weekend pleasure trip,” she said.

Governors and other political leaders regularly attend high-profile games featuring state universities.

But, as past NCAA Tournament trips did under the administration of Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, the trips to the Elite Eight and Final Four raised questions about who the governor invited and what, if anything, was discussed on the flight, over dinner and during the game.

The governor’s office was not immediately available to comment this afternoon.

Kriegshauser said she doesn’t know what, if any, political business the political leaders discussed.

“There wasn’t an agenda,” she said. “I’m sure it was just political chitchat.”

The Final Four trip came less than a day after a budget meltdown that led Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss to announce that state courts would close on five Fridays in coming months because of a budget shortfall. And it also came as Brownback and his administration leaned heavily on lawmakers to advance his hallmark income tax cut plan and favored versions of congressional and Senate redistricting maps.

Senate President Steve Morris, a powerful moderate Republican who is viewed as a roadblock to several key items on Brownback’s agenda, wasn’t invited, his staff confirmed.

March flights common for governors

Joe Aistrup, a Democrat and political science professor at Kansas State University, doesn’t see any issues with political leaders attending games.

"Governors do all kinds of trade missions to different countries and represent the state at a variety of events,” he said. “When you have a major event like a state university in the national spotlight, it’s usually expected the state’s leader will be there."

Aistrup said it’s also appropriate that a legislative leader, such as the House speaker, attend. And he said that it’s not unreasonable for the state to foot the bill, considering the governor’s job is not particularly well-paid. Brownback earns $99,636. Jayhawks coach Bill Self, meanwhile, makes $3 million a year, plus bonuses.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and first lady Jane Beshear also used a state plane to see their state’s team, the Kentucky Wildcats, ultimately defeat the Jayhawks 67-59 in the championship game. The Beshears also attended the semifinal game in New Orleans.

The state Democratic Party picked up the tab, according to articles in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Beshear had also used the plane to see the Final Four in Houston the year before. The state party picked up the $6,105 tab, according to the Herald-Leader.

When the Jayhawks reached the national championship game in 2008, seven Democrats and four Republicans accompanied Sebelius on the state airplane to early-round games in Omaha and Detroit and to the Final Four in San Antonio, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.

The newspaper reported that House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, accused Sebelius of using state resources to convince lawmakers to join her in a fight against a coal-fired energy plant. Neufeld suggested those trips may have led to the House’s failure to override a Sebelius veto of a bill that would have advanced the project.

But lawmakers told the newspaper that they didn’t discuss the coal plant, and none of them switched votes on that issue.

Democratic leaders were not immediately available for comment Thursday afternoon.

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