TALLAHASSEE — Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp likes to joke about the insignificance of his second-banana job, but his self-deprecating wit only amplifies questions about why the state is spending so much money flying him around.
State leaders are preparing for one of Florida's most painful budget years in memory with the legislative session that begins Tuesday, just as Kottkamp's travel-spending habits are gaining notoriety.
"There's no question that the public perceives this as wrong," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who calls Kottkamp a friend and a hard worker. "At a time when we're struggling to balance our (budget), everyone needs to tighten the reins on spending and travel."
State Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, said, "The lieutenant governor job is the most irrelevant job in state government. This may be time to look at following the lead of other states and eliminating the post to save taxpayers money, particularly during these difficult budgetary times."
Kottkamp is supporting a rival of Rivera's in an upcoming state Senate race, but his remarks come amid new revelations about Kottkamp's use of state planes and vehicles. It already was known that Kottkamp racked up half a million dollars in travel in a plane and sport utility vehicle, but that didn't include his use of a Piper Navajo owned by the Florida Highway Patrol.
Kottkamp used the twin-engine, six-passenger plane on 24 different days from January 2007 to December 2008. The trips were first reported Friday by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
The Highway Patrol said the plane costs $270 per hour to operate, but that apparently does not include the costs of pilots' and mechanics' salaries.
Two of the trips stand out.
• On April 28, 2007, a Saturday, the Highway Patrol plane carried Kottkamp, his wife and son to St. Augustine and returned them two days later. He took those as personal days, according to his schedule.
• On Nov. 28, 2008, the plane was flown to pick up the Kottkamps in Fort Myers, and they were taken to Tallahassee for the weekend. His calendar had no scheduled events for that weekend.
There was a football game between Florida State and Florida that weekend, but it was unknown Friday whether Kottkamp, an FSU graduate, attended. The family returned to Fort Myers on the same plane on Dec. 1.
Last week, Kottkamp wrote the state a $3,836 check to cover the times his wife, Cyndie, and son, Jackson, were on the plane.
Earlier this month, Kottkamp reimbursed the state $6,600 for trips on other state planes after newspapers raised questions.
Kottkamp, who earns $127,399 annually, did not respond to requests for an interview that were made during the past three days.
The Governor's Office did not make a statement Friday evening, leaving no one in the administration to defend him. Previously, Crist had said travel was part of Kottkamp's job.
The Florida Highway Patrol defended the use of the plane and noted other state officials have used it as well. As lieutenant governor, Toni Jennings used it more than Kottkamp has so far, according to records released by Highway Patrol.
What's more, the agency said the $270-an-hour cost to use the plane is cheaper than commercial or charter air services. It also noted that Kottkamp's use of the plane has decreased from when he first took office. He has used it a total of 86 flight hours: 39 in 2006-07; 27 in 2007-08 and 20 so far in 2008-09.
The bill for 86 hours would be $23,220.
"We provide a service for all of our state partners to use. If the lieutenant governor has a trip where he has multiple destinations, traditionally his office has allowed us to fly him," Highway Patrol Col. Ernesto Duarte said.
In addition to the plane, the Highway Patrol bought three sport utility vehicles at a cost of about $80,000 and positioned one each in Fort Myers, Tallahassee and central Florida for Kottkamp's use.
But even Gov. Charlie Crist doesn't have more than one vehicle assigned for his exclusive use, said Heather Smith, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The FDLE, which provides Crist's security, also prohibits the use of its three aircraft for flying public officials, Smith said.
Kottkamp's flights over the past two years have cost $400,000, and his security detail, a state trooper who owns a home in Kottkamp's hometown of Fort Myers, has billed taxpayers for $60,000 in travel expenses, mostly between Fort Myers and Tallahassee.
The Highway Patrol noted Friday that it has long provided protection to those who have held the lieutenant governor job. The 1967 Piper Navajo plane Kottkamp has used was acquired in 1995 from a joint state and federal drug bust.
Clearwater political activist David Plyer has filed an ethics complaint against Kottkamp, accusing him of misusing his position for personal benefit.
"It bothered me the way money is being spent," Plyer said. "They are not forced into the job. If there are some inconveniences, that's unfortunate."
On Wednesday, Kottkamp was in St. Petersburg and spoke for 15 minutes at a utility summit conference at the Renaissance Vinoy hotel. He told about meeting humorist Dave Barry, who told him that the job is so obscure, "Anybody can claim to be a lieutenant governor."
Times staff writers Lucy Morgan and Donna Winchester contributed to this report, and information from the Associated Press was used. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.