State Sen. Craig Estes doesn’t mess around when it comes to being transported around the state.
The Republican from Wichita Falls has spent $317,000 on private planes, including fueling and in-kind contributions from a wealthy political benefactor, since 2007.
Estes, who did not respond to a request for comment for this story, explained his air travel in 2009 to the Dallas Morning News, saying, “I’m a little envious of my colleagues in Amarillo and El Paso, since Southwest flies there straight from Austin every day.”
His home is 123 miles from DFW International Airport in Dallas. To keep the flying costs down, though, since 2007 he’s spent $143,000 in campaign funds for car expenses, including a four-figure car payment, thousands of dollars on Sirius radio and OnStar service and $2,182 on vehicle maintenance.
Personal finance sages say the two largest expenses most individuals will incur are the home and the car. The least recoupable and ultimately costly is the latter, which begins to depreciate the moment it leaves the lot.
A number of state lawmakers, though, have figured out a way to parlay their office into a full time whip, spending their campaign contributions on cars that range from the extravagant to the utilitarian.
Seven current legislators have spent over six figures on their cars since 2007. Collectively, they have spent $1.6 million in campaign funds on motoring-related expenses.
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) loves her cars and her campaign coffers give her the ability to have them. More than one, in fact; the Laredo Democrat has for years paid for two cars with her campaign funds, up to $1,547 a month in payments.
She gets around in a Lincoln Navigator, while her office staff have a Chevy at their disposal.
“When I was first elected, I used a personal car and put more than 100,000 miles on it and 100,000 more on my husband’s and realized that this was a personal expense for a state related purpose,” said Zaffirini, who was elected in 1987.
Last year, records show, she paid $1,400 a month in lease payments. In the past ten years, she has spent $201,912 in campaign contributions on car leases or purchases — enough to buy almost six $35,000 cars.
Leasing two cars means double maintenance, and Zaffirini has racked up monthly oil changes and other repairs that have totaled $16,468 over the past ten years.
Even with relatively affordable cars coming from the Ford and General Motors brands, the perception of a free vehicle as a perk rankles some watchdogs.
“The systemic problem with this is that it gives at least the appearance of someone seeking a lifestyle that their constituents cannot afford,” said Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of the Every Voice Center, an advocacy group that aims to limit the role of big contributors in politics. “There are also donors giving them that lifestyle. They may not be able to buy them a fancy car or a trip to an exotic destination, but this helps fund that kind of thing.”
Nyhart pointed out that spending rules vary by state, but often, “the law gets stretched and sometimes there is less of a law.”
Texas has a part-time legislature, where members are paid $7,200 a year, while other states with a full-time statehouse give their lawmakers a living wage that covers their work.
Among other vehicle-related spending of campaign funds:
- State Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville), a member of the Senate Finance Committee, spent $139,985 on three new Fords in 2009, 2013 and 2016, with the listing “campaign vehicles”.
- State Sen. Eduardo A. Lucio (D-Brownsville) spent $176,540 of his campaign funds for vehicles, repairs, Sirius service and, showing a flair for cleanliness, $2,992 on car washes. He leased one vehicle and purchased two others.
- State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) spent $142,777 on vehicles, with payments reaching $850 a month.
- The auto bill of state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) comes to $139,008, which entails the use of a BMW.
Whitmire is the lone Beemer lawmaker, records show, with his use of the German luxury auto going back to 2005, when he paid $251 a month from his campaign coffers to Advantage BMW in Houston’s Midtown. Last year’s monthly payment was $970. Before the cars, he would use rentals at a cost of $1,200 a pop.
Whitmire’s car bill also includes $22,656 over the years for repairs, which doesn’t square with BMW’s warranty, a four-year, 50,000-mile promise that includes everything down to the xenon headlights.
The repairs were particularly pricey in 2010, when he spent $6,400 on fixes.
Whitmire did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Cars paid for from campaign coffers, be they luxury rides or domestic rattletraps, are generally connected with members of the senate.
Former state Sen. Jeff Wentworth leased a Lexus with campaign funds the last five years of his two decades in office.
“Nearly every member of the Senate did,” Wentworth said. “I’d suspect it’s because senators have healthier campaign funds.”
Wentworth, a San Antonio Republican who was ousted in 2012, said that no matter how much an office holder raises, he will always end up spending some of his own money on transportation and every other thing connected to office.
“We are paid $600 a month and we are working year round, if we are doing the job correctly,” he said. A vehicle to do business related to that year-round work, he said, is justified.
The lawmakers do not have free reign to spend from their campaign accounts, he noted.
“There is restraint on that spending,” he said. “It cannot be for personal things, it has to be related to the campaign or the office, or you can give it to a 501c3, or another campaign or party. I can’t just go out and buy things for my house or gifts for my family. It’s not like you can raise as much as you want to spend any way you want.”
Wentworth said he never heard any talk of reforming the system to regulate use of campaign funds among his colleagues.
“I did hear about that from reporters, though,” he said.
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or [email protected]