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Auditor suggests legal clarity on governor use of state plane

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ST. PAUL -- State law is not clear on whether Minnesota's governor can use a state airplane to travel to political events, the legislative auditor said today.

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The auditor scolded Gov. Mark Dayton for taking a campaign aide with him to Bemidji and International Falls in 2012. Dayton’s office admitted that was a mistake and said it will not happen again.

“The state has not established a consistent standard for determining whether it is lawful for the governor to use a state airplane to travel to political events,” Legislative Auditor Jim Nobel’s office said in a summary of a report it released this morning.

The auditor said that if the Legislature decides the issue “the law should expressly require reimbursement from the appropriate political organization.”

An investigation began after an Oct. 24, 2012, flight from St. Paul to Bemidji and on to International Falls. Dayton held one official meeting in Bemidji and a political event there and one in International Falls. The auditor also looked into a Sept. 28, 2012, flight to Willmar and a Sept. 20, 2012, trip to Brainerd. All the trips included a mix of official and campaign events.

Dayton’s campaign paid for most of the Bemidji and International Falls flight expense, his office reported. The Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a conservative group, raised the travel subject when it said it learned a top political aide traveled with the governor, but there were no official aides on the trip.

Dayton’s office said the state paid for half of the cost of the flight from St. Paul to Bemidji, where he met with local officials about a dispute over wording on a sign. His campaign paid for the entire flight from Bemidji to International Falls and back to St. Paul, spokesman Matt Swenson said.

The campaign paid more than $2,000 for the $3,000 trip, the press secretary said. That was about two-thirds of the total cost. The campaign paid about half of the cost of the Brainerd and Willmar trips.

The auditor’s office reported that generally in state government, public money cannot be used for private or political purposes. However, “it has been generally accepted” that state money can be used to pay for state troopers to protect the governor all the time and that he may use a state vehicle to travel to any event.

Dayton Chief of Staff Tina Smith said in response to the report that the governor believes the state should not pay for political activities, but his security detail prefers using a state plane because of safety and logistical concerns.

“Our policy thus called for the governor’s political committee to fully reimburse the state for any air travel costs incurred by adding political activities to travel for state business,” Smith wrote in her response. “In no circumstance do taxpayers bear any costs for a state plane used for the governor’s political travel.”

Smith made a promise about campaign workers: “In regard to the trip to Bemidji and International Falls, a campaign staffer accompanied the governor on the flight. This was an error and will not happen again.”

She said that, unless the law changes, the governor will continue the practice of reimbursing the state for use of the plane for political trips that are mixed with official ones. However, she said, the governor’s campaign will charter a private plane when Dayton's trips are only for political purposes.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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