TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott hit political turbulence Thursday as he tried to carry out a campaign promise to ditch the state's aircraft fleet to save money.
One Cabinet member reacted with some dismay to criss-crossing the huge peninsula by car. Legislators questioned whether Scott has the authority to get rid of the aircraft pool on his own — in a state capital known for inferior air service.
Scott himself won't have to worry about travel: He owns a personal jet. For his first official road trip Thursday, a flight to Miami, he boarded his seven-passenger, twin-engine plane with a tail number ending in his initials, RS, at a private aviation center called Million Air.
"Everybody knows I campaigned that I was going to get rid of the state planes, and it's the right thing to do," Scott told reporters.
When Scott uses his jet, he pays all the costs. But aside from depriving fellow politicians of one of the nicer perks of statewide office, he invited a backlash by not consulting a new team of legislative leaders in advance.
Asked how those officials should get around, Scott said bluntly: "There's commercial flights. There's cars."
With the state facing a $3.5 billion budget shortfall, Scott calls the $2.4 million budget for the aircraft pool a waste of money and selling the planes a boost to the anemic bottom line. It will also eliminate 10 state jobs.
But dumping the planes may not be as simple as it seems.
For one thing, the state does not own the nicer aircraft, a 2003 Cessna Citation jet acquired by former Gov. Jeb Bush. It is being leased, and the payoff amount is $3.4 million, so the state would have to sell the jet for more than that to turn a profit.
A 2008 report by legislative analysts said the state could realize a net profit of $535,000 after selling the Cessna.
Scott's directive to dump the planes will force Cabinet members and other state officials to drive long distances or scramble for cramped commercial flights in a city with notoriously bad airline service. Airfare for official business would be reimbursed.
Scott's declaration renders the two planes politically radioactive, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam got the message.
Putnam planned to leave Tallahassee by car Thursday afternoon, with an overnight stop at his Bartow home, to get to an Everglades conference in Weston, near Fort Lauderdale, by midmorning today.
"It's the governor's prerogative to eliminate the aircraft fleet and we'll work with it," Putnam said. "We'll continue to be accessible and available to the public and hit as many events as we possibly can. That's just the way it is."
The other two Cabinet members, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, said they supported getting rid of the planes, and would travel by state car.
House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said he was reviewing Scott's order to get rid of the planes and said: "If additional authority is required, we will work with the governor."
Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, had no comment.
Air travel in and out of Tallahassee is not a trifling matter. That's because the capital city is just a dozen miles from the Georgia border, and a long way from Florida's downstate population centers.
It is farther from Tallahassee to Miami (480 miles) than it is from Tallahassee to Charlotte, N.C. (460 miles), Baton Rouge, La. (440), Jackson, Miss. (435), or New Orleans (385), according to Google Maps.
On a typical day, only a few commercial flights depart from Tallahassee to other Florida cities. Other flights force travelers through Atlanta to Tampa or Orlando, often requiring overnight hotel stays.
A midmorning commercial flight from Tallahassee to Miami today is on a 19-passenger turbo-prop plane run by Continental Airlines. The full-fare cost for a last-minute round-trip ticket is $717.40, according to St. Petersburg Travel, a private travel agency.
"I've learned that the hard way," Putnam said. He uses airports in Panama City or Jacksonville to get in and out of Tallahassee, and said: "It's a fraction of the cost, too."
Scott's commitment to shut down the air pool was praised by Craig Air Center, a private Jacksonville company that hopes to take the place of a state-run air service. The firm submitted a low bid in 2009 when it offered to save the state about $1 million, but the state canceled the bids and kept its planes.
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, Katie Sanders, Janet Zink and Lucy Morgan contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.