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Shawn Vestal: Gov. Inslee’s travel budget smudges the line between political and professional

In this June 21,2018, file photo, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at a news conference in SeaTac, Wash. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

It’s been a sea-to-shining-sea year for our peripatetic governor.

From Los Angeles to New York City. From Hawaii to Telluride. Altoona to Aspen, Bandon to Bozeman, San Francisco to Sante Fe …

Jay Inslee, as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, has been on the road a lot this year, and frequently for political purposes – out there stumping for candidates and raising money.

And that means his security detail has been on the road a lot this year, going way over budget. So much so that a sergeant with the Washington State Patrol, which provides that detail, raised concerns about the onerous pace of all that moving around: “I am pretty sure we cannot continue at this level without something breaking,” he wrote in an email to his bosses on Aug. 1.

That email was unearthed and reported by Jim Brunner of the Seattle Times, in a piece recently about the budget-busting security demands of Inslee’s increased travel – a lot of which was done in the service of building the governor’s national political profile and boosting his party.

Whether the notion of a President Inslee strikes you as realistic or not, that idea is in the air. Going forward, the costs and frequency of that political travel will continue to raise questions about how Inslee is balancing his duties at home with his responsibilities and aspirations on the national stage.

All the globetrotting has opened up a flank for attack for Inslee’s critics. But even people who support the governor generally should be concerned about this; it’s always been tough to separate the political activities from the professional ones when it comes to politics, but there are times when it’s clear that the line has been smudged.

The president of the United States using Air Force One in a sustained national electioneering campaign is one example; Inslee dragging his eight-man security detail to headline Democratic Party conferences is another.

The Times and Northwest News Network reported earlier this year that Inslee had taken more than a dozen out-of-state trips for the Democratic Governors Association this year, amounting to all or parts of 49 days.

The news organizations used public records to quantify this travel, including the governor’s official schedule. That’s further affirmation – as we head toward a legislative session where resistance to the dictates of the Public Records Act among lawmakers still thrives – that the PRA is a crucial tool for the public to hold its politicians accountable. And that very much includes access to the calendars and schedules of public servants, as well as their emails.

Inslee’s national work as a fundraiser, stumper and presidential critic has taken him to Iowa and New Orleans and Hawaii for conferences and meetings. It’s taken him to Washington, D.C. – where he drew attention for memorably rebuking President Trump for his tweeting in a White House meeting. He flew to and from Bandon Dunes Golf Course, on the Oregon Coast, for a fundraiser.

His critics say Inslee is taking his eye off priorities in Washington, and he defends the travel as important for resisting the Trump agenda – which, he argues, is itself good for the state.

But it ain’t so good for the budget of the Executive Protection Unit.

That’s the eight-person plainclothes security detail that accompanies Inslee everywhere. The WSP has asked for a $1.3 million budget increase for the team – a 50 percent hike over its current $2.6 million budget.

The unit has gone $407,000 over budget this year, and went $291,000 over in 2017, the biggest overspending for the unit in more than a decade. Overtime and travel expenses account for most of the overbudget spending, according to the Times reporting. In one example, the paper reported that two troopers each accumulated more than 90 hours of OT on trips in July – more than $12,600.

In the context of the patrol’s total two-year budget of $691 million, the governor’s security expenses are relatively small. He’s not the only governor whose state pays for such security on political travel. And it’s certainly true that it can be difficult to neatly separate the political from the professional, purely on-the-job aspects of the work that elected officials do – it’s a line that sometimes seems not to exist at all.

But the governor’s work on behalf of the DGA, and his potential aspirations on the national stage, stand clearly apart from his gubernatorial responsibilities. The DGA pays for his travel expenses for most of these trips – just not the security costs.

As Inslee continues to lead the group, and if he dips his toe into the waters of a presidential run, he should come up with a clearer, cleaner answer to the question: Who pays?

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