Frequent Flier

Gov's use of state plane irks LaRocco


Well, nobody expected Jim Risch to sit on his hands. The go-go governor of Idaho has always had a reputation for busy-ness.

But since Risch took office at the end of May, it would be difficult to overstate his enthusiasm for his short-term job. After ordering a special session of the Idaho Legislature to discuss a single piece of his own legislation, naming several new department heads, and opening new state offices in Coeur d'Alene and Idaho Falls, even the most far-flung resident of the Gem State had to have noticed that something was different in Boise.

That's also due in part to Risch's penchant for travel. In the two months that he's been governor, Risch has made a habit of popping up all over the place. In a state as large, rugged and un-roaded as Idaho, this requires air travel.

"He's the governor of all of Idaho, not just Boise," said Brad Hoaglun, Risch's spokesman. "That's about the only way you can get around and use your time efficiently. He has no qualms about it."

But at the same time that he is governor, Risch is also a candidate for the November election, for his old job as lieutenant governor. In fact, Risch headlined a June 8 event sponsored by the Committee to Elect Jim Risch, sponsored by many of Idaho's largest business names, from Micron to Simplot.

This mixture of state business with an election rubs his Democratic opponent, Larry LaRocco, the wrong way.

"He has been using the state plane as a campaign vehicle," LaRocco said. "They're in high campaign mode here, in areas where my polling shows that he is very weak."

Risch has said that rather than stumping for a job, he's trying to fulfill his oath of office. Critics like LaRocco, he said at a speech to the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce last month, are only selectively recalling that oath.

"They kind of forget the end part, which is that you'll do the job to the best of your ability," Risch said.

So, on six different occasions in the month of June, his first full month as Idaho's 31st governor, Risch stepped on board the Idaho State Plane and lifted off for various Idaho locales. Of the 12 trips taken by the 1979 King Air plane that serves as Idaho's aircraft, Risch and his staff were on half of them.

"We see him a few days a week," said Bob Martin, the director of the Aeronautics division of the Idaho Transportation Department. "There were times when he was out here day after day after day."

Former Gov. Kempthorne was not averse to flying either; in the month of June 2005, according to the ITD, Kempthorne took the King Air aloft four times, including one flight to Portland, Oregon.

The flights aren't cheap. According to Jeff Stratten of the ITD, passengers are charged $720 per group, per flight hour. That covers pilots, maintenance, fuel, oil and landing fees.

The plane does not technically belong to Idaho; in 1998 the federal government loaned the King Air plane to Idaho, which operates the aircraft through a memorandum of understanding with Idaho State Police. The nine-passenger plane has a market value of approximately $1 million, according to the ITD.

While state pilots wait for Risch and staff to complete official duties, they charge $62 per hour.

So it is that a single trip to Couer d'Alene in the middle of June cost the state $3,171. The bill, like most others, was sent to the governor's office. But not all of the bills go there; a June 9 trip to Bonners Ferry--to examine the potential flooding of that town--was paid for largely by the Idaho Office of Homeland Security, which picked up most of the $2,338 bill. The Idaho State Police paid for $334 of that outing.

The total cost for Risch's flights in the month of June was $11,809.

His destination of choice appears to be Coeur d'Alene, where in June he opened a one-person office devoted, he said, to constituent service issues.

In addition to being the costliest trip for the month, Risch and company flew back to Coeur d'Alene three other times.

"We are seeing him often," said Coeur d'Alene Mayor Sandi Bloem. She said he wasn't a stranger while he was lieutenant governor. "We did see him, but certainly not the way we do now."

Depending on the amount of time he spent in town, the costs of the trips changed, because pilots were asked to wait for him to be ready to return to Boise.

Risch usually travels with his wife, first lady Vicki Risch, who is known to be a constant confidante and political adviser to the governor. She is on four of the flight manifests provided to BW by the ITD under the Freedom of Information Act. In one case, according to Hoaglun, the first lady spent time in Coeur d'Alene on a separate project. According to Hoaglun, Vicki Risch is taking on a lead role in the nursing shortage issue that the governor spoke about at his inauguration.

Other frequent fliers include Hoaglun and Ryan White, Risch's deputy chief of staff. Risch also travels with a single bodyguard, a rotating position. Other passengers include state agency heads, such as Idaho Commerce and Labor director Roger Madsen.

While he travels, the headlines pile up. And LaRocco's job gets more difficult, as he tries to engage Risch in a public campaign.

In this regard, LaRocco is at a distinct disadvantage, said Ross Burkhart, the chair of Boise State's political science department. There's even a name for the phenomenon, Burkhart said.

"It's called 'incumbency advantage,'" Burkhart said. "In a democratic system, incumbents do have the advantage in running for office. It's always harder for a challenger to distinguish themselves. They just simply don't have the ability to show what they have done."

Instead, LaRocco is left to point out differences. His campaign's mode of travel, he said, is a 2002 Ford Explorer.