Private Jets and Country Clubs Help Soften Blow of Meager Pay

Rita Kirk, director of the Southern Methodist University Maguire Ethics Center, talks about the perks associated with elected office.

By Emily Ramshaw

Many Texas lawmakers are quick to name the sacrifices they make to serve: the meager state pay, the grueling hours, the time spent away from their families and their day jobs.

But in other ways, life in the Legislature has its advantages. The perks associated with the job — travel, hotel upgrades and campaign cash spent on luxury gifts — can augment lawmakers’ lifestyles considerably.

Take Senator Troy Fraser, Republican of Horseshoe Bay, a 16-year veteran of the upper chamber who previously served in the House. Over the last three years, Mr. Fraser, the Senate Natural Resources Committee chairman, spent more than $300,000 from his campaign account maintaining his personal airplane, at least $33,000 on country club expenses and more than $4,000 on suits, on top of thousands of dollars on upscale hotels for conferences and events from Hawaii to Buenos Aires, according to his campaign finance reports.

Between 2008 and 2010, he claimed more travel per diem payments — 361, valued at more than $58,000 — than any other member of the Senate. And in the last several years, taxpayers paid for him to attend at least nine policy conferences in destinations like Puerto Rico and Santa Fe, N.M. In some instances, Mr. Fraser flew his own plane, receiving mileage reimbursements at up to triple the price of a commercial ticket.

Mr. Fraser said all his campaign expenses and Senate reimbursements were related to his role as a legislator and, in particular, his expanded duties as the chairman of a major committee.

The airplane costs, which he said he incurred flying across the state for official business, “do not cover 100 percent” of his bill. He justified the country club membership by saying he made a weekly golf outing “available to all members of the Legislature and all lobbyists.” And the clothing he bought was purely for use during the legislative session, he said....

Rita Kirk, director of the Southern Methodist University Maguire Ethics Center, said the root of this behavior was Texas’ part-time Legislature, where “the only people who really can get there are people who are wealthy enough to self-finance or have wealthy people invest in them.” She said it established an “elitist government style” in which proper stewardship of taxpayer or donor dollars could at times be compromised....