TALLAHASSEE — Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp traveled to Pensacola on Thursday the old-fashioned way: by car.
The official explanation was that both state-owned airplanes were in use or reserved.
But after criticism of his frequent flights at taxpayer expense, Kottkamp's ground travel to promote Gov. Charlie Crist's low-cost health insurance initiative looks like an austerity move at a time when one key legislator has suggested abolishing the office of lieutenant governor.
In addition, Kottkamp became a punch line in the Legislature this week — not a good place for someone responsible for advancing Gov. Charlie Crist's agenda. Republican Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville, in a discussion of whether tax-law changes might improve the level of air service, cracked: "In case that doesn't work out, I understand Air Kottkamp is going to set up."
Kottkamp has brought heightened scrutiny on himself, partly because he has taken sides in a contentious Miami-Dade state Senate race involving both of the House's most influential budget writers. Kottkamp supports Rep. Marcelo Llorente, R-Miami, whose fellow budget chairman and political rival, Rep. David Rivera, has suggested abolishing the lieutenant governor's post as unnecessary.
Rivera also has asked state highway safety officials to explain the costs of Kottkamp's security detail, provided by the Florida Highway Patrol. Rivera, who oversees the budget of the Highway Patrol, met this week with the agency and its parent agency to learn more about Kottkamp's travel and security.
Rivera declined to discuss the meeting, saying he was seeking more information.
Llorente noted that Rivera has twice sponsored an $840,000 state appropriation for a festival in Miami that Crist vetoed two years in a row. (Rivera said he asked for the appropriation as a favor to a senator.)
"It seems to me that the lieutenant governor's expenditures are much more worthwhile and justifiable," said Llorente, who called Kottkamp, "the most honorable and decent man I've gotten to know in Tallahassee."
Curiously, that kind of unequivocal support for Kottkamp has not been forthcoming from Crist, who has passed up repeated public opportunities to vouch for his No. 2. Asked Thursday to respond to criticism of Kottkamp by the media and public, Crist said only: "We're just trying to do what's right." Asked if jokes about "Air Kottkamp" pose a problem, Crist said: "I don't think so."
Newly released records from the Highway Patrol show that Kottkamp is the only elected official who flew on the agency's aging Piper Navajo plane in the past two years. He used the plane 24 days during that period, in addition to using other state planes and driving in a state sport utility vehicle at a cost of $700,000 including $60,000 in travel costs for a state trooper who is Kottkamp's round-the-clock security escort.
"There's a lot of ground to cover. It can't always be done on the road," Kottkamp said this week. "Especially in the last eight months as the budget has tightened, we've gone more on the road, driving as much as possible, to save the taxpayers' money."
The Highway Patrol has justified Kottkamp's use of its plane and the $23,000 expense by noting that other officials also flew on it. Agency records show that James McDonough flew on the patrol's plane five times when he was corrections secretary. A corrections official, George Sapp, flew on it three times, and Julie Jones, director of the Florida Wildlife and Conservation Commission, did twice while 15 other officials, including Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente, each rode on it once.
"That plane is available for government officials whether they elect to fly or not," said Highway Patrol Lt. Col. Ernesto Duarte. "It's a service we provide. We don't limit it to certain people."
Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, a friend of Kottkamp's, said the focus on his air travel is unfortunate because "it has undermined the importance of our lieutenant governor and his position" and the need for Crist's No. 2 to be visible. He said it also illuminates the issue of limited air service between the state capital and southwest Florida, where Kottkamp has a home.
Aubuchon said his last flight from Fort Myers to Tallahassee went through Atlanta and took 71/2 hours.
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Alex Leary contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.