- Associated Press - Saturday, July 2, 2016

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - At government expense, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach frequently flies in the state-owned executive aircraft to promote voter ID efforts outside of Kansas and to speak at Republican political events across the state, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The state is mired in a budget crunch, forcing legislators to slash funding for highway projects and struggling public schools to curtail bus services for students, but Kobach has spent thousands of dollars to fly more than 4,350 miles in the state’s nine-passenger Raytheon King Air 350.

Using open records requests to obtain daily logs along with emails and other materials to piece together an accounting of the plane’s usage from Jan. 1, 2015, to March 24 of this year, the AP found several flights by Kobach that appeared to either offer no benefit to Kansas residents or have little connection to official duties. On some trips, Kobach scheduled state business to coincide with Republican Party functions, and his family often flew with him.

Kansas has a statute that allows the governor to use the executive aircraft for personal or political travel as long as he reimburses the state, but mentions no other state agencies. The Kansas Highway Patrol, which oversees aircraft operations, says it has no specific guidelines and leaves its usage up to each state agency.

Kobach defended his use of the plane by saying that he’s doing it less than former Republican Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh, who also flew with family members and logged about 8,700 miles over two years. He added that filling empty seats doesn’t increase the agency’s costs.

Kobach said in an email that he plans to visit all 105 county election officials to observe voting equipment and voting sites and discuss implementation of voter ID and proof-of-citizenship laws.

“It is absurd to suggest that such on-site meetings in the county election offices have no benefit to the Kansas taxpayer,” Kobach said. “The notion that officials in Topeka should govern remotely without understanding the specific situation in each of the 105 counties is dead wrong.”

The AP looked at all flights taken by the government officials regardless of which state agency paid for the trip. The costliest one any state official took during that 15-month period came Feb. 27, a 2,193-mile trek by Kobach to first deliver the eulogy at the funeral for a former employee, Jim Minihan in Virginia, then to speak at an archery banquet in Hutchinson before returning to Topeka. Traveling with him on the $3,290 flight was Dave DePue, a Topeka pastor whose ministry focuses on evangelizing government officials; DePue is not a state employee.

Other Kobach flights included:

- A Jan. 23, 2015, trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, to testify about the Kansas photo ID law when the Nebraska Legislature was considering the adoption of a similar measure, then to Great Bend to meet with the Barton County clerk. His wife, Heather, joined him on the $807 trip.

- A May 8, 2015, trip with his daughter, Reagan, to McPherson where he was keynote speaker at a Republican luncheon. Media reports show he spoke to local Republicans about voter fraud and his efforts to get prosecutorial power. Kobach also participated in the All School’s Day Parade in his “official capacity,” his office said. The flight cost $386.

- An Aug. 6, 2015, trip to Newton to meet the Harvey County clerk and local reporters before attending the county Republican Ice Cream Social. Daughters Lilly and Reagan joined him on the $360 flight.

- An Aug. 8, 2015, flight to Wichita, where he was keynote speaker at the Sedgwick County Republican Party fundraising picnic. He gave what the Wichita Eagle termed a “state of the Republican Party” speech on guns, abortion, elections, illegal immigration, taxation and courts. His office said he spoke to Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman that Saturday as well. The flight cost $524.

Twice, Kobach’s office was unable to book the state plane to fly to Washington, D.C., for a hearing and deposition on the lawsuit he joined in support of Brian Newby, a federal election official who without public notice unilaterally changed a national voter registration form to require residents of Kansas, Georgia and Alabama to show proof of citizenship. Instead, Kobach and a staff member took commercial flights at a cost of $6,594 for airfares and other travel expenses, according to expense reports obtained by AP.

Kobach contended he has made “extraordinary efforts” to reduce spending, including fewer flights and fewer employees in his office through attrition. He also noted his office is entirely funded by filing fees from regulated businesses - not taxpayer money - and his agency contributed $10.2 million to the general fund last year.

But Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, criticized Kobach’s use of the state plane to promote voter ID policies, an action Ward says would “suppress votes as he has in Kansas.” He questioned whether state government should have paid for travel to the funeral, saying that was “straddling the line, if not crossing it.”

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley said Kobach should reimburse Kansas for trips to Republican Party events, calling claims that the political functions coincided with official business “probably just a ruse.”

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Follow Roxana Hegeman on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rhegeman and find more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/roxana-hegeman

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