TALLAHASSEE — The two leading candidates for Florida's governor have grounded their high-flying ways on state-owned airplanes.
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Attorney General Bill McCollum have dramatically cut back their use of state aircraft since a Times/Herald analysis in June revealed they had racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in flights, including questionable use of planes by family members and use of the planes to commute to work from their homes in other parts of the state.
In the past four months, Sink and McCollum have largely turned to traveling by car or on commercial airlines, just as they've been ramping up their campaigns for governor. State plane records show that Sink cut back her state-plane use 87 percent during that period and McCollum reduced his 92 percent compared with the same four-month stretch in 2008.
"I am campaigning, and I don't want to be questioned about potential abuse of the plane for that reason," McCollum said.
Sink, the more frequent flier of the two, would say only that she was looking at "alternative forms of transportation."
Sink, a Democrat, and McCollum, a Republican, both face ethics complaints from their rival's supporters over their airplane use. To stem a flood of bad publicity, Sink in July took the unusual step of reimbursing the state $17,000 for 20 airplane trips to different cities on days when she mixed state and campaign business.
Since then, the majority of the Florida Cabinet — Sink, McCollum and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson — have cut the number of times each has flown on state planes, according to an analysis of plane records.
Bronson cannot seek re-election, due to term limits, and is not seeking another office in 2010.
The only statewide elected official who has increased his use of state planes is Gov. Charlie Crist, who flew around the state more often this year than last, mostly to promote legislation he signed and attend ceremonial functions.
Crist has flown 84 times since the start of this year, 18 more times than he flew in the first 10 months of 2008.
As Crist has taken more state-paid flights, he has also been hitting the campaign trail on his own dime as a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. His new wife, Carole Crist, has been flying on the taxpayers' dime as well: She has used the state plane 19 times since January at a cost to Florida taxpayers of nearly $6,500.
Unlike other first ladies who adopted various causes to promote, Mrs. Crist has mostly avoided the spotlight. Most of her state-plane trips involved ceremonies such as a ribbon-cutting, dinners, an art show and entertaining the king and queen of Spain, who visited the state in January.
"The first lady is attending more state events as she is listening to the needs of Floridians and speaking to more groups," Crist said through a spokesperson. The governor declined to comment directly.
A critic of state officials' use of state airplanes, Republican Sen. J.D. Alexander of Lake Wales, said the overall reduction in flights underscores the need for the state to get rid of one of the two planes.
Alexander last year asked the state Department of Management Services, the agency that manages state-owned resources, to post plane passenger lists and trips online. The senator partly attributed the drop in plane usage to the new online postings.
"All the publicity has probably led to more legitimate use of the plane," said Alexander, the Senate's chief budget writer.
McCollum has flown on a state plane only twice since July. By contrast, he flew 25 times from July 2008 to October 2008. Total savings from the reduced flights: nearly $53,000.
Sink flew only four times since July on the state plane. By contrast, she flew 31 times from July 2008 to October 2008. Total savings from the reduced flights: nearly $27,000.
Since each took office in January 2007, Sink has charged taxpayers for nearly $414,000 in flights and McCollum has charged more than $280,000. McCollum used the state plane more frequently than Sink for one-way trips that resulted in an empty plane flying to or from Tallahassee to an airport near his suburban Orlando home.
Both Sink and McCollum have insisted they've used the state plane in accordance with all state rules.
When a reporter questioned her about her travel at a campaign stop last weekend, Sink said: "I continue to travel extensively on state business. I find it easier not to do all the bookkeeping — it should be required — so I'm considering alternative forms of transportation."
Times/Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.