- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 25, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - In 2011, when Anantshree Chaturvedi was looking for a place to spend $180 million and hire 250 people, he called officials in Ohio and Kentucky.

Steve Beshear, the Democratic governor of Kentucky at the time, rushed to the airport. Within 24 hours, he was in India, signing an agreement with Flex Films to bring a plant to Elizabethtown. Today, that plant has 136 employees.

“Having the governor of the state come down, for part of the project, gives confidence that nothing else can really match,” Chaturvedi said.

That was one of 33 international and domestic trips Beshear took during his eight years in office, which conclude Dec. 8. He spent 154 days out of state while visiting 18 countries. The total cost to taxpayers was $486,456.97, the most expensive of which was a 12-day trip to Taiwan, Singapore and Japan that cost more than $45,000, according to information obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request. The costs do not include Beshear’s security detail, which was paid for by the Kentucky State Police.

National groups, including the National Governors Association, do not keep track of governors’ travel. That makes it difficult to compare Beshear’s schedule with his peers. But an AP analysis of governors’ travels earlier this year found Beshear took eight international trips in 2014 and the first half of 2015, the most of any governor.

Beshear’s opponents have not made an issue of the time he has spent out of state. And former Gov. Paul Patton, Kentucky’s last two-term governor before Beshear, said Beshear took about as many trips as he did. Patton, also a Democrat, said his trips included annual visits to Japan, which has become one of Kentucky’s largest trading partners, and trips to Korea, Europe, Canada and Mexico.

“The governor’s time was more valuable than the cost of the trip,” Patton said. “You don’t just sit in that office. Traveling the state, traveling in the country and traveling the world is a vital part of that office.”

Beshear’s status as one of the few remaining Democratic governors in the South played a role in his eagerness to travel. He and his party count on labor unions to support Democratic candidates in an increasingly Republican state. That means opposing so-called right-to-work laws that would ban mandatory union membership as a condition of employment. Republicans say such laws keep states competitive in attracting large manufacturers while union leaders say they are designed to dilute labor’s influence.

But Beshear has been able to attract many companies to come to Kentucky, and he says his willingness to travel on a moment’s notice to land the sale is part of that. During his eight years in office, his administration has announced more than 2,200 new location and expansion projects, $18.1 billion of new investment and 105,000 new and retained jobs. Some of those numbers are estimates, and not all of the jobs came through. Flex Films, for example, promised 250 jobs but to date has hired 136.

“We have been wanting to expand and put up the second phase, but the market for the product we make has not been very productive recently,” Chaturvedi said. “That’s the reason it has been a little bit on a hold.”

Beshear was most often accompanied by Economic Development Secretary Larry Hayes and a revolving cast of state officials and contractors. Altogether, 29 people accompanied Beshear on his trips, including his wife, first lady Jane Beshear. Jane Beshear traveled on 10 trips, all of them to international destinations that included Europe, India and Japan. Taxpayers paid her expenses, too, except for three trips to India, Japan and Europe.

“All of the economic development trips that we have made around the country and around the world over the last eight years have been more than worth it,” Beshear said. “You won’t find many meals charged to the state. We just buy our own meals and pay for those kinds of expenses ourselves. It’s mainly the travel in terms of air flight and hotels that the state covers.”

Outside groups have paid for Beshear’s and others’ meals, however. Most international trips cost the state more than $20,000. But four such trips had expenses of less than $7,000. Flex Films paid for most of these expenses for two Beshear’s trips to India. A third trip was paid for by India’s National Association of Software and Services Companies. A 2012 trip to Taipei, Taiwan and Japan was mostly paid for by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Beshear’s critics have not made his travel an issue. Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who leads the Senate committee that oversees the governor’s budget, said the committee has not made an issue of Beshear’s travel.

“If you are courting major international corporations, there has to be a level of expectation that they want to see the major players,” McDaniel said. “That doesn’t seem excessive to me.”

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