This is a story about one high-flying day in the life of the five-month-long legislative session.
It’s a tale about $11,700 spent in efforts to capture the hearts and minds of 5 million Minnesotans over a $37 billion budget debate.
It all began on Feb. 16, soon after Gov. Mark Dayton announced the framework of his state budget proposal.
To market his plan, as many governors have done over the years, Dayton took off on a statewide fly-around to meet local political leaders, some civic activists or, even, average folks who turned up at the regional airports — and to make his case to the media.
Meanwhile, the Republican leadership of the House and Senate embarked on a dueling fly-around, sort of chasing the governor and his message on their own King Air plane, bashing Dayton’s tax plan in four key political and media centers: Rochester, Mankato, Moorhead and Duluth, and also in St. Paul.
In this age of tweets and texts, Wi-Fi and BlackBerrys, a turboprop and a little human face time among political leaders, their constituents and local media seemed downright quaint. It is old-fashioned democracy … even if the governor and lawmakers needed wings to make it happen.
What it cost …
I drove to Mankato — at MinnPost, we drive — to report on this head-to-head aerial debate. In a one-hour sequence, the GOP leaders departed — there were almost zero citizens and a few local reporters there to greet them — and the governor arrived at the Mankato Regional Airport. He was met by about 35 local political and education officials, and even a few governor groupies.
After we posted the resultant story, reader Bruce Anderson suggested this in a comment: “Please inform if you know who pays for the planes in which the DFL executive and the GOP [legislators] jet around.”
Thus began a journalistic journey whose destination is this, more than a month later. And thanks for their assistance to Michael Brodkorb, Republican Party of Minnesota deputy vice chairman (and also the spokesman for the GOP Senate majority), to Gov. Dayton’s deputy chief of staff, Andrea Mokros, and to Kevin Gutknecht, Department of Transportation communications director.
Collecting the data took some time — the state invoice, for example, had to be tracked down — but they each gathered information for MinnPost with nary a Data Practices Act request required.
Here are the bottom lines:
• Gov. Dayton flew a plane owned and operated by the Department of Transportation. The total cost to taxpayers (PDF) was $3,718.29. Dayton was accompanied by several commissioners and staffers, including Mokros. Star Tribune reporter Rachel Stassen-Berger flew with the governor, and the news organization was billed $617.91 for the ride. Total cost to operate the MnDOT plane: $4,338.
• Without access to a MnDOT airplane, Republican Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and Deputy Majority Leader Geoff Michel, and House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Majority Leader Matt Dean, plus some staffers, had to rent a plane from NewFlight Charters. Their fly-around, according to Brodkorb, was paid from campaign funds raised by the House and Senate GOP caucuses. Total cost (PDF) for them, including taxes: $7,371.55.
… and why
Now, we know that the GOP folks are fiscally responsible, so we (and Brodkorb) wondered about the $3,000 or so difference in the cost between the two fly-arounds; after all, they flew to the same four airports. (For some reason, the governor’s recorded mileage between each stop was a bit longer.)
According to a manager at Jackson Hole, Wyo.-based NewFlight, and another private aviator I spoke with, the differences are easy enough to understand.
MnDOT owns the plane, while the GOP was renting its vehicle. NewFlight must make a profit; MnDOT must not. MnDOT’s pilots are full time and paid a range of $25 to $43 per hour and, for the purposes of the governor’s invoice, pilot wages weren’t included, Gutknecht reported. MnDOT’s pilot wages come out of a different budget.
A NewFlight charter manager told me that it is not uncommon for a pilot who owns his or her own plane to see direct costs at about 50 percent less than a commercial charter service, which, according to others, has high insurance costs and regulatory costs, to name a few.
Was it worth it? I remember what Zellers told me in Mankato about the cost of carrying his party’s message across the state: “It’s our job,” he said.
Fly-arounds have become a communications tool. Certainly, former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty used them. Dayton likes outreach, too. The GOP leaders, as is there right, were there to rain on his parade and poke at the governor’s message.
The real bottom line, which seems more important than $11,700?
It came from Dayton spokesperson Mokros, who summed up the reasoning of both sides: “It’s critically important to get outside the walls of the Capitol, to speak to and hear directly from constituents, and to give local reporters the opportunity to ask questions and get answers. These folks shouldn’t have to travel to St. Paul to hear directly from their governor. The decisions made in St. Paul affect them, too.”