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North Dakota governor's travel costs spike

FARGO -- North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven's travel expenses during the first 10 months of this year were almost three times the amount for the same period last year, increasing from $2,705 to $7,845 during the comparison periods.

A breakdown of the governor's travel expenses sought by The Forum shows the governor made five out-of-state official trips, all to Washington, D.C., during the first 10 months of this year.

On the other hand, Hoeven's use of a state airplane declined during the period this year compared to last year - Jan. 1 through Oct. 31 - and his miles driven were essentially the same.

Hoeven's travels to Washington included a trip in May for a flood recovery meeting, a trip in July to testify before a congressional committee on energy, another trip in July to meet with energy and defense officials, and a trek in September for meetings with defense, environmental protection and disaster response officials.

"It's a function of what we're working on," Hoeven said of the variations in his in-state and out-of-state travels. "In '09, of course, we had the flooding. So I was out there (in Washington) working on flood recovery."

The May flood recovery meeting, for instance, involved congressional representatives and governors of both states as well as federal administration officials.

The apparent spike in travel to Washington occurred during a time of active public speculation that Hoeven could challenge Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., during next year's election.

"What's coming up?" said Meredith Pickett, director of communications for the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party. "The 2010 election. That's the difference that I see."

Hoeven, who has sidestepped questions about his future political intentions, could end the speculation, Pickett said.

Echoing earlier comments, the governor again was vague last week.

"I think these campaigns go on too long," Hoeven said. "We're still almost a year away. We haven't set a timeline."

Adam Jones, political director for the North Dakota Republican Party, said Hoeven doesn't have to decide about a senate bid until the party's state convention, March 19-21, in Grand Forks.

"I think that's the only timeline he's on," Jones said. "He'd have to announce by March 19."

The Forum asked for Hoeven's year-to-date travel expenses on Nov. 24, and received the figures last week. Because the November totals were not in yet, the tally was provided for January through October.

Although the governor's out-of-state travel, using commercial air, increased markedly, his use of the state airplane was down by 22 percent, from 182 hours to 149 hours, during the comparison periods.

The state air fleet is operated by the North Dakota Department of Transportation, which does not bill the governor's office for the use of the plane, a practice that dates back more than 30 years, said Tim Horner, a deputy director of transportation.

Transportation officials estimate it costs $1,065 an hour to fly the Beechcraft King Air twin turboprop plane the governor uses.

It would not be fair to assess the entire cost to the governor's office, Horner said, because the governor is often accompanied by state officials from various agencies and other guests, sometimes including members of the state's congressional delegation.

Besides members of the governor's staff, Hoeven "more often than not" has state officials from other agencies accompany him on his travels. Those officials are listed on the governor's official calendar, a copy of which was made available to The Forum for August through November.

His numerous travel meetings during that period included appearances with peace officers, economic development officials, the Fargo Air Sho and Big Iron, the Jamestown Rotary Club, a school rededication in Minot, an Industrial Commission meeting at the State Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks, and send-off ceremonies for National Guard troops, to list just a few examples.

"Obviously, we work hard with people around the state," Hoeven said.