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Up in the Air, New Mexico Style

By Thomas J. Cole
Journal Staff Writer
      A year ago, Gov. Bill Richardson announced that agencies under his control would be restricted in their use of government airplanes because of the state budget crunch.
    The policy has resulted in a reduction in aircraft use and a savings for taxpayers.
    But there's a loophole you could fly the state's $5.5 million Cessna Citation jet through:
    The restrictions don't apply to Richardson and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish.
    Richardson's use of state aircraft was down in the last half of 2009, but Denish's time in the air was up.
    The 12 flights by the lieutenant governor included a flight from Albuquerque to Las Cruces for an energy conference. Denish was the only passenger aboard.
    The state also spent nearly $1,500 to fly her to Gallup for a parade. The plane was on the ground less than three hours.
    Denish, one of the state's most active lieutenant governors, is the presumptive Democratic nominee in the 2010 elections to succeed Richardson.
    Since the start of the administration in 2003, Denish's office has been billed more than $170,000 for use of state planes. In paying that $170,000, nearly $33,000 came from a 2003 federal jobs stimulus bill, said her chief of staff, Joshua Rosen.
    He said some of the federal funds were used to transport Denish to events on helping small business owners locate and access capital.
    Rosen said Denish needs to meet with New Mexicans across the state and that she personally purchases carbon credits to offset the emission of greenhouse gases caused by her activities, such as plane travel.
    Aircraft restrictions
    In response to the decline in tax revenues, Richardson announced in January 2009 that "The Governor's Office will limit its use of the state aircraft and require state agencies to do the same."
    The administration later issued what it called its Guidelines for Use of State Aircraft, which outlined permissible uses of the government's jet and two other planes.
    Under the guidelines, aircraft can be used only for high-priority essential services, emergency response, surveillance activities, cost-efficient multi-passenger transportation or travel considered to be essential to the health, safety and welfare of the state or the operation of government.
    But in response to a recent query concerning Denish's use of aircraft, I learned from the General Services Department that the restrictions weren't "intended for the Governor's Office or the Lieutenant Governor's Office."
    Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for Richardson, didn't respond when asked why they didn't apply.
    Denish's office was billed more than $20,200 for 18.84 hours of flight time on government aircraft in the last six months of 2009, according to data from the General Services Department.
    The office's monthly average for flight hours was up 28 percent from the 2008-09 fiscal year but slightly below the average for the previous fiscal year.
    Here's a look at a couple of trips by Denish:
    n For the energy conference, the state jet left Santa Fe on Aug. 31, picked up Denish in Albuquerque, where she lives, then flew to Las Cruces. She also met there with Shell WindEnergy, Rosen said.
    The jet returned to Santa Fe that evening but flew back to Las Cruces the following day to pick up Denish and an aide.
    The billed cost for the jet to fly back and forth to Las Cruces twice was $3,534.
    n On Aug. 15, the state jet left Santa Fe with Rosen aboard, picked up Denish and a State Police security agent in Albuquerque, then flew to Gallup so the lieutenant governor could attend an Inter-Trial Indian Ceremonial parade.
    Denish was on the ground about 2 hours and 45 minutes before the jet returned her to Albuquerque, then made its way back to Santa Fe. The billed cost of the plane use was $1,482.
    Asked about the plane use, Rosen had this to say:
    "Lt. Gov. Denish believes it is important to fight for every community in New Mexico and to talk face to face with New Mexico families and business owners in every corner of our state."
    Rosen also cited Denish's purchase of carbon credits and said her office ranks No. 6 among agencies in plane use since the administration took office.
    "While she's absolutely committed to energy conservation, she also needs to efficiently travel around the state," he said.
    Gov. flies less
    The Governor's Office was billed more than $25,100 for 22.57 hours of flight time in the last six months of 2009. Its monthly average for flight hours was down about 12 percent from the 2008-09 fiscal year.
    Still, Richardson's flights have included travel that would have been a tough fit for the guidelines he set for other agencies.
    An example: The governor and a member of his State Police security detail flew to Ruidoso on the government jet on the evening of Oct. 16 and returned to Santa Fe the next morning. The billed cost was $1,140.
    The reason for the trip: so Richardson could speak at the opening of a learning center linking the Hubbard Museum of the American West in Ruidoso to the Smithsonian museum system in Washington, D.C.
    The learning center is named for wealthy Hobbs businessman Johnny Cope and his wife, Marty, who are political supporters of Richardson. Johnny is the governor's chairman of the Transportation Commission and Marty is his chair of the Racing Commission.
    Richardson's plan to save the state money by restricting use of government aircraft appears to be working.
    In the first full nine months after the guidelines were imposed, use of planes fell nearly 18 percent to 324.5 hours compared with the same period in the previous year.
    The Children's Medical Services, which provides medical care to poor children with chronic health conditions, and the Transportation Department continue to be the top users of government planes.
    Much of the Transportation Department use is to ferry members of the Transportation Commission, including Cope, to commission meetings around the state.
    UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Thom Cole can be reached in Santa Fe at 505-992-6280 or at tcole@abqjournal.com

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