STRANDED-IN-TALLAHASSEE — After logging 220,000 miles, Florida's chief financial officer said it was finally time to say goodbye to his Honda minivan "Blue Steele."
"Need some ideas on what to get next," Jeff Atwater tweeted recently to his followers. "Any suggestions?"
In Gov. Rick Scott's Florida, Cabinet members are a long way from the days when they hopped across the state in a Cessna jet. Scott made the state's two planes a symbol of government excess when he defeated a pair of rivals who used them.
But while taxpayers are saving because the planes have been sold and shipped out of state, real questions remain on whether the smaller travel bills are worth the costs — which are measured mainly in time. While Scott can move about the state in his personal private jet, Cabinet members are forced to drive or rely on Tallahassee's limited commercial air service.
Asked about the sale of the state planes, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam smiled and said, "It is what it is."
Scott fulfilled a campaign promise on his first full day as governor when he ordered the sale of the state's two airplanes: a 2000 King Air 350 and a 2003 Cessna Citation Bravo.
The decision was not without controversy. Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, argued that the sale required legislative approval. Atwater said it at least needed the blessing of the state's three Cabinet members: himself, Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi.
The planes were not without controversy, either. Former Attorney General Bill McCollum, former CFO Alex Sink and former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp all were accused of using the planes for nonofficial business.
In the end, Kottkamp reimbursed the state $12,974 for flights his wife and son took, and the state Commission on Ethics did not pursue a case.
Still, Scott — a wealthy former health care executive — pounded both McCollum and later Sink for their air travel during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
Scott sold the King Air for $1.77 million and the Cessna for $1.9 million, which netted the state $560,000 because the state still owed money on one of the planes. The sale also eliminated future operating and leasing costs of about $2.4 million a year.
Changes in travel
The decision to sell was easy for Scott, who can and often does use his own personal jet to do his job.
But what about the three other Cabinet members who travel? Do the savings offset making it more difficult for them to travel a state as big as Florida?
Bondi and Atwater say they fully support the sale and don't think the travel restrictions interfere with their job.
Bondi "prefers to cover the majority of her in-state transportation costs herself," said spokeswoman Jennifer Meale. Bondi has incurred $4,272 in travel-related expenses since taking office, Meale said.
That's in contrast to the air travel of McCollum. In his four years as attorney general, McCollum flew 181 times at a cost of $151,881 — an estimate based on a per-passenger basis.
McCollum said the value of having the planes has been overlooked.
"The bottom line is, without a state plane, when you have real state business to do, it takes time, and time is a valuable thing," he said. "Without the planes, it's less efficient government. Or, it means you're not reaching the people of the state, especially the ones in remote areas."
The Tallahassee airport has direct flights to Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Tampa. But no direct flights to Orlando, West Palm Beach, Naples or Fort Myers. Getting to these cities requires flying first to Atlanta or Charlotte, or landing in one of the Florida cities that the airport does serve and then driving.
"You'd end up consuming a huge amount of time to go to those places," McCollum said.
Without the planes, Atwater relied on his minivan and saved taxpayers about $39,000. That's how much Sink cost taxpayers by flying on the state plane during her first year in office.
Atwater said that he doesn't mind the inconvenience, and that he has become accustomed to traveling by car.
He didn't always feel this way. Before he became Senate president in 2008, Atwater relied heavily on the taxpayer-financed friendly skies.
According to records with the Florida Department of Management Services, Atwater flew 95 times on trips that cost $88,000 in 2007. Because other passengers were on board, Atwater's portion of the bill was estimated at $14,965.
"In 2007 many senators used the state plane collectively in an effort to minimize individual trips and keep costs down," Atwater's spokeswoman, Anna Alexopoulos, said in an email. "After 2007, CFO Atwater assessed the associated expenses and determined that it was more practical and cost efficient to drive. For the past four years, he has traveled predominantly by car whenever possible."
Not as welcoming
Agriculture Commissioner Putnam hasn't been as welcoming of Scott's grounding.
Putnam has received $4,378 in travel reimbursements since taking office last year. His predecessor, Charles Bronson, dwarfed that expense with his use of the state plane. Records show that between July 2004 and the end of 2010, Bronson used the plane 578 times on trips. The estimated expense for flying Bronson: $310,000.
Yet not being mobile comes with its own cost. Putnam drives throughout Florida in either a state vehicle, where he doesn't receive a reimbursement, or his own vehicle.
Putnam said he's more limited in meeting with groups from across the state and has to be more selective in participating in events. His office in particular deals with issues and groups that are in faraway places not served by commercial air travel.
During the legislative session and during the weeks that Cabinet meetings are held, he lives in Tallahassee. But most of the year he's based closer to home in Winter Haven.
"It's more of a central location," Putnam said.
Michael Van Sickler can reached at [email protected]