Originally Posted: April 29, 2018
AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott has pursued a busy national and international schedule in his first term that has driven state-paid travel expenses for his security detail to more than $1 million and counting.
Security accompanies Abbott whether he is pursuing job expansion for Texas, fundraising for his campaign, promoting his book, speaking at a political event or vacationing in Hawaii — the most expensive single destination reported so far for the security detail, at more than $71,000.
But the title of costliest trip is a moving target.
Not yet available is the security cost of Abbott’s recent nine-day business development trip to India.
And at least one trip with multiple destinations cost more than his recent holiday in Hawaii. His January 2016 trip to Israel and Switzerland to meet with leaders and promote Texas business interests cost nearly $97,000 for security.
Here are the out-of-state travel expenses for Gov. Greg Abbott’s security detail, which accompanies him on trips and is paid for by taxpayers.
Note: These travel-related costs were reported by DPS. A small number of trips may have been canceled without refunding advance costs, and a few may have been taken alone by Mrs. Abbott, who also is covered by the security detail. Additionally, the month something was expensed is not necessarily the month of travel.
Abbott’s direct travel expenses typically are covered by means outside of state taxpayer money, such as his campaign or an economic development entity.
But the security detail is funded by taxpayers through the Texas Department of Public Safety. The San Antonio Express-News regularly tracks this expense through reports maintained by the agency.
Since Abbott took office in January 2015 through February, the latest report available, the travel cost for his security detail has mounted to $1.2 million. Of that, $1 million is for out-of-state trips. The total includes travel, fuel, food, lodging and a category called “other.” It does not include salaries or overtime.
One of the Democrats vying to face the Republican governor in November said Abbott should reimburse taxpayers through his campaign account for security expenses on trips that aren’t for state business. At last count, Abbott had more than $41 million in cash on hand.
“Governors need security when they’re traveling and taking care of the people’s business. But should taxpayers be on the hook for security costs when Abbott wants to have a steak dinner and some wine with the Koch brothers? No. Should they have to pay for him to be on Fox & Friends or address the NRA? No,” said Juan Bautista Dominguez, spokesman for former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez. “Working Texans are already hurting from Abbott’s raid of education funds and neglect of health care. They cannot afford his tea party jaunts.”
Valdez faces Houston businessman Andrew White in the May 22 runoff election for the Democratic nomination for governor.
White, son of the late Democratic former Gov. Mark White, was more measured.
“In the interest of taxpayer funds, I hope the governor would reduce his security detail for out-of-state trips — especially out-of-state personal trips — to the absolute minimum security required,” White said.
Matt Hirsch, deputy chief of staff for Abbott, said the governor isn’t open to making reimbursements for security. Like former Gov. Rick Perry’s staff did, he points out that being governor is a 24-hour-a-day job and that security requirements are determined by DPS.
The taxpayer-funded cost of security for a governor was highlighted when Perry ran for president while holding his state office.
Like Abbott, Perry’s direct travel expenses typically were not charged to taxpayers. But Perry’s state-paid security costs ballooned as he raced for the White House.
Perry’s security detail incurred nearly $3.7 million in out-of-state travel expenses from his 2010 re-election through December 2014, his last full month in office. Of the total, $1.8 million was tallied when he sought the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, has unsuccessfully pushed legislation to require state officeholders to pay for the cost of security on trips outside the state for personal or political reasons. He also has pushed ethics legislation to rein in the appointment of big donors by governors. Larson was among lawmakers whom Abbott unsuccessfully sought to unseat in this year’s GOP primary.
Larson said that in the next legislative session, he wants to work with the governor’s staff “on a solution that can be part of overarching ethics legislation that will transcend political party affiliation regardless of who resides in the (Governor’s) Mansion.”
House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican who is running for House speaker, said lawmakers might want to have more discussion about the issue of security costs, noting the spotlight on the matter when Perry was traveling.
“I don’t know that we ever developed a solid policy position on it,” Zerwas said.
Like any official, Zerwas said, the governor has political obligations. Like any person, he said, the governor has a need for private time.
“The governor is the single most recognizable public figure that we have. We can’t expect him to not ever have some personal time away,” Zerwas said. “He still is going to need some security in that case.”
Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson said Abbott’s security cost “plays into a larger story to which we are increasingly sensitive,” that of security for officials overall, including in the Trump administration. Jillson cited the example of Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, who was reported by the Associated Press to have a “swollen” 20-member security detail that cost the agency millions of dollars.
While acknowledging cases such as that of former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was badly injured in a shooting, Jillson said an attack harming a governor hasn’t happened in decades.
“The idea that you need a security team to protect a governor — I’m not convinced,” Jillson said. “At least not that it needs to be an extensive security team. … We are in danger of overly securitizing our public officials and separating them from the public.” READ MORE