Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who is running for governor on a platform of fiscal discipline, has logged hundreds of flights on state planes, often including side trips for her and family members to their home near Tampa.
Attorney General Bill McCollum — also running for governor — has cost taxpayers much less money in travel but frequently dispatches an empty plane to pick him up from the airport in Sanford, 13 miles from his Longwood home, at additional cost to the state.
Sink, a Democrat, and McCollum, a Republican, are rivals for the state's top seat in 2010 and both have used state aircraft to help them maintain regular access to their permanent homes. That has raised questions about whether they are as protective of public money as they claim.
Sink defends her travel as "important to get around the state and talk to people outside of Tallahassee." She says she reimburses the state for all flights by family members, and notes that she pushed and succeeded in getting state plane logs to be posted online.
"When I came into office — before I even stepped foot on a state plane — I asked the aircraft service what the rules were and the guidelines for family members' travel and I have followed those guidelines," she said. "I have been trying to play by the rules."
State law requires Cabinet members to maintain a legal residence in Tallahassee; McCollum and Sink have second homes in the capital. But the law prohibits them from using a state plane to commute to get to their state jobs.
While both McCollum and Sink say they use the state plane only for official duties and those often include events near their hometowns, records from the Department of Management Services show both have also used it to get home to Central Florida.
On June 13, 2007, for example, Sink and two staffers flew to Orlando for an insurance fraud conference and on the return flight stopped in Tampa to pick up Sink's son, Bert McBride, for the trip back to Tallahassee. Two days later, Sink and staff members left Tallahassee, stopped in Tampa to drop off her son, and then continued to Orlando for a Florida Credit Union luncheon. The cost of diverting the flights to Tampa: $2,925.
On May 11, 2008, Sink, her daughter, Lexie, and a staff member returned from attending the Global Conference on Sustainability and Transparency in Amsterdam and had the state plane pick them up from Atlanta. The cost of the travel to the conference was paid for by the conference sponsors and the state charged Sink $285 for her daughter's travel on the state plane. The total cost to taxpayers for the Atlanta-Tallahassee leg: $1,568.
On several occasions, McCollum dispatched an empty plane from Tallahassee to his home near Sanford to take him to events around the state. Often the plane would return him to Central Florida and fly back to Tallahassee with no passengers.
One such example: On Feb. 3, 2007, a state plane went to Sanford to get McCollum, who attended funerals in the Panhandle for two murder victims: the wife of a sheriff and a sheriff's deputy. After the funerals, the plane flew McCollum back home to Sanford and the empty plane flew back to Tallahassee. The extra cost of flying from Tallahassee to Sanford and back for McCollum: $1,950, according to state flight records.
Senate budget chief Sen. J.D. Alexander of Winter Haven has been a longtime critic of the tendency of state officials to mix business and personal convenience on the same trip.
He has been frustrated in his attempts to tighten the use of state planes and was unable to persuade fellow legislators this spring to sell a second state plane.
Alexander said he understands the need for state officials to travel but doesn't want taxpayers to foot the bill unfairly.
"It's just when every weekend they've got a meeting in their hometown, I don't feel good about that," he said.
A Times/Herald review of Sink and McCollum's state plane use found the following:
• Between January 2007 and June 22, 2009, Sink's office spent $413,334 for state air travel — the second-lowest amount of any Cabinet official — while McCollum spent the least: $280,189.
• Since Sink announced her campaign for governor on May 13, she has spent $11,400 in state plane travel. Since McCollum's announcement on May 18, he has spent several personal days campaigning but has not used the state plane.
• Since taking office, McCollum spent $59,597 flying empty planes to pick him up or drop him off. Sink spent $34,598 on flying empty planes to get her.
• Both Sink and McCollum have used the state plane for short hops. For example, McCollum took a 12-minute flight from Fernandina Beach to Jacksonville on May 22, 2008. Sink flew from West Palm Beach to Boca Raton — a 15-minute flight — on Jan. 24, 2008. Each said their tight schedules and traffic concerns required them to use the state plane for the short routes.
Sink owns a home in Tallahassee but the residence on which she claims a homestead exemption is in Thonotosassa. Her husband, Bill McBride — along with daughter, Lexie, and son, Bert — have traveled with her on state planes.
State records show Bill McBride flew on a state plane four times in 2007, and Sink wrote her agency a check for $1,184.16 on Jan. 24, 2008. Since then, Sink said she has reimbursed her agency for all other family travel.
To calculate reimbursement rates, the state divides the cost of the flight by the number of individuals flying.
Sink aides also noted that Sink has taken 176 commercial flights for official business since coming into office.
McCollum rents an apartment in Tallahassee, but his permanent home remains in Longwood, an Orlando suburb, where his wife, Ingrid, also lives. McCollum has never used a state plane for family travel, according to state records.
"I am often at home. I do go back," McCollum said, from Tallahassee.
He acknowledged that he could drive back to Tallahassee to start his trips, "but that's not easy to do. … I have never, to my knowledge, taken the plane anywhere except on official business, and I have never spent time doing anything on that plane to run up costs."
McCollum, who has 12 regional offices around the state, noted that he often travels on state business alone or with a single aide. Sink frequently travels with several aides.
The number of passengers does not change the cost of the flight.
As Cabinet members, Sink and McCollum's travel is largely unregulated. They are considered "priority one'' fliers, in the same category as the governor and lieutenant governor, among others.
That means their requests to use the state plane are answered first, before others who are not in leadership positions, said Cathy Schroeder, spokeswoman for the Department of Management Services.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.