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Lucy Morgan

With Cabinet grounded, Scott grabs spotlight

TALLAHASSEE

There is an interesting side effect to our governor's decision to jettison the state's airplanes and rely on his own plane to travel around the state.

When Gov. Rick Scott took office he made a big show of ditching those nasty old planes that former governors, Cabinet members, legislators and even FSU football coaches have used for years.

As a candidate he railed against those who used the planes and promised to rid us of the problem while spending $75 million of his own money tooling around the state in his own private jet.

Now don't get me wrong; we have written miles of stories about public officials misusing the state-owned airplanes. It becomes something of a scandal about once a decade after newly elected folk start misusing the planes for friends and family and trips home or campaigning.

The state was drowning in red ink, foreclosures and unemployment, but Scott made it his first task to sell the planes and dismantle the agency that kept them in the air. The state netted about $560,000 from the sale after paying the money still owed on one of the planes.

You might wonder if he realized how much impact it would have on the three Cabinet members who are among those most likely to challenge him when he seeks re-election in 2014. Historically, many members of the Cabinet, elected independently of the governor, have used their positions as stepping stones to the governor's office. The most recent politician to use this route was Charlie Crist, who served as education commissioner and attorney general on his way to the governor's office.

Getting rid of all state planes seriously hobbles all of the other state officials who need to travel around the state to supervise far-flung employees and keep in touch with citizens who need their services. Anyone who has tried to travel in and out of Tallahassee can tell you how inconvenient it is to go anywhere. A plane trip to Orlando often means a costly trip through Atlanta and lots of extra time spent coming and going as well as overnight stays when you might have returned the same day.

Chief Finance Officer Jeff Atwater, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi have not complained, but each of them has to scramble to cobble together ways to do their jobs.

Atwater uses a minivan and drives around the state. Putnam also drives, sometimes using a state car and other times in his own car. Bondi says she pays most of her own in-state expenses.

The governor climbs aboard his own jet and goes to ribbon cuttings, meetings and other appearances in every corner of the state at his own expense. Although his poll numbers don't indicate it has made him popular, it does give him a chance to see more voters and make headlines and the nightly news on a daily basis.

Was Scott thinking of this when he got rid of the planes? No, says a spokesman. He doesn't have a "Machiavellian political approach to things.''

What happens if Florida elects a governor who can't afford his own jet?

That's where the taxpayers come in. Given the difficulty in getting around the state, it's almost certain state airplanes will re-emerge in the years to come. Imagine the CEO of any big business driving himself from place to place in a state as big as Florida.

Sure state planes are expensive and make public officials an easy target if they abuse the privilege, but they are likely to cost less in time wasted and tickets on commercial flights that charge as much as $700 for one person to travel to Orlando and back.

Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@tampabay.com.

With Cabinet grounded, Scott grabs spotlight 03/15/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 15, 2012 6:50pm]

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