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NC5 Investigates: You Paid For It!

College Board Keeps Flying Despite Budget Crunch

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Bobby Thomas Bobby Thomas
State Rep. Debra Maggart State Rep. Debra Maggart

By Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter

While the state faces a major budget crisis, the people who run most of Tennessee's colleges and universities are getting free rides on state planes -- and you've paid for it!

For the last year, students at Tennessee's colleges and universities have feared big cuts in programs, along with big tuition hikes.

And recently the governor warned that state government's budget hole is getting even deeper.

But such budget woes haven't grounded some members of Tennessee's Board of Regents. That's the board that oversees universities like Tennessee State University, Middle Tennessee State University and Austin Peay.

"It has been historically the case that board of regents members have traveled by air. That's an indisputable fact," the board's vice chair, Bobby Thomas, acknowledged to me.

And when they fly, it costs you money.

The board is composed of 18 people from across the state.

And for most of its meetings, the board dispatches two state aircraft to transport six of those members to and from Nashville. One plane flies to Chattanooga, Knoxville, the Tri-cities and back. The second flies to Memphis, stopping off in Jackson on the way to Nashville.

Last year, you paid: $44,614.50.

That's almost $45,000 to fly those six members to just eight meetings.

"I don't think that amount of money spent on air travel is exorbitant," Thomas insisted.

I reminded him, "$45,000 would have been somebody's job."

"Yes, it may have been two people's jobs," Thomas responded. "But we have an obligation -- we, being the 18 commissioners -- have an obligation to oversee the sixth largest higher education system in the country."

Yet, those planes flew even when members from the farthest corners of the state were not flying.

In September, a state plane flew to Jackson to fly one board member to a meeting in Tullahoma. The plane later flew back to Tullahoma to take him home.

You paid: $1,980.

Thomas called that a mistake. "I'm not sure that a state plane should fly just one person."

We also found another day when a plane flew to Jackson to pick up that board member, flew across the state to Chattanooga to pick up another, flew back to Nashville for a meeting, then a few hours later retraced the same route to take them both home.

You paid: $2,460.

"Is that an efficient use of state aircraft?" I asked Thomas.

"It is not," he admitted. "I did not particularly pick that one out, but no that is not an efficient use."

State Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, a member of the House Finance Committee, questioned whether those high-flying board members really know what's happening down on the ground.

"It's an insult I think to the taxpayers and to the families in our state that are making cuts to their own budget, their own family budget," Maggart said. "And it's an insult to the state employees."

In fact, our investigation discovered that among all the boards and commissions in state government, the Board of Regents is the only one that flies its members in for meetings.

Even state lawmakers drive themselves.

For example, last month, when the governor summoned members of the state's four education boards to a meeting at the Capitol, others found their own way to Nashville.

And members of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission didn't even ask for gas money -- a decision that, their executive director said, they made years ago.

"It was a majority of the commission members, private citizens, that under the circumstances of that time -- this would have been 2002 when our budget was being cut like everyone else's -- that that was just one expense that they could bear personally," Rich Rhoda said.

But our hidden cameras were there, when the Board of Regents touched down in Nashville just in time to get to the meeting with the governor.

Getting off the planes, they were met at the state hangar by state employees who chauffeured them to the Capitol.

So why did they get such special treatment?

"The time of the board members is valuable. They are very busy people," Thomas said.

I questioned, "Isn't the time of the board members of every other commission in state government valuable as well?"

Thomas smiled, "I certainly didn't mean to infer that their time wasn't valuable also."

Maggart did not like that answer. "We're all busy. And if you want to be on the Board of Regents and serve our state, I think you should be able to make a sacrifice."

With the state flying into even more difficult budget times, the board's vice chair said it may be time to chart a new course.

"These shorter trips, yes, we need to not do that anymore," Thomas added. "As I said, the policy is constantly under review and -- thanks to you -- it's going to be under more review."

Thomas, however, wasn't quite willing to commit to bringing forth a proposal to actually change the policy.

And what about the University of Tennessee board -- do they fly their members to and from board meetings? 

A university spokesperson told us they don't, and when we checked flight records, those logs also appear to support what he said.

E-mail: pwilliams@newschannel5.com

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