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A Times Editorial

Taxpayers get bill for frequent fliers

Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp racked up nearly $400,000 in state plane trips, many of them to his hometown of Fort Myers. The two leading candidates to be the next governor, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, have each diverted state planes to their hometowns as though they consider them a personal commuter airline.

There ought to be a state law that clearly states that those who hold full-time state jobs and have been elected statewide cannot commute via state aircraft to their Tallahassee jobs from their homes elsewhere in the state. While current law on state plane use is murky at best, the lack of clarity is being exploited and taxpayers are paying for it.

Until a 2005 law change, commuting via the state's aircraft was clearly prohibited. But a word change in one part of state law, but not in another, now suggests such practice is open to interpretation. And state officials are taking advantage.

Along with Gov. Charlie Crist, Kottkamp, McCollum and Sink have become masters of scheduling public events of sometimes questionable value outside of Tallahassee on Mondays and Fridays so they can easily have the state planes pick them up or drop them off en route to or from official business. That allows them to stay in their private homes elsewhere in the state.

A recent analysis by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau found McCollum and Sink had spent a combined total of nearly $100,000 dispatching empty state planes to pick them up or drop them off since taking office in early 2007. Often the pickup was near their homes in Longwood and Thonotosassa, respectively. But Sink has also diverted the plane to accommodate her personal schedule. The plane stopped in Tampa to pick up her husband on a return trip to Tallahassee from Miami. On another Miami to Tallahassee return, she had the plane drop her in Fort Lauderdale so she could catch a flight for a long weekend with her husband. Sink has paid the state-required fees for when her family travels with her, but those fees don't cover the full cost of diverting the aircraft.

The travel patterns of Sink, McCollum and Kottkamp prompted state investigators in March to note that officials appeared to be using the planes to commute to Tallahassee. Their tally was $51,000 over six months starting in July 2008. But a final version of the audit ordered by the Department of Management Services, to determine if the planes' billing systems were functioning, struck the language. The DMS secretary said the agency doesn't have the staff to investigate officials' use of the planes.

There are legitimate reasons to maintain a small state aircraft fleet. Florida is large, Tallahassee is isolated from population centers, commercial air service to the capital is pitiful and the state fleet is useful in the aftermath of natural disasters. Expecting the governor, Cabinet and other top officials to rely solely on commercial transportation or automobiles to traverse the state is impractical. Another alternative — for them to depend on the largesse of private jets from political contributors — raises serious questions of conflicts of interest and favoritism.

But Sink and McCollum need to be more fiscally prudent, particularly as they spend time on the campaign trail claiming to be good stewards of the public's tax dollars. Sink shouldn't divert a state plane to accommodate her personal life. She and McCollum should not be requiring state planes to fly empty and pick them up at their residences away from Tallahassee for public events scheduled to justify the trip. The voters elected them to an office based in Tallahassee. It's their responsibility to show up for work every week and get themselves there, not the taxpayers'.

Taxpayers get bill for frequent fliers 07/04/09 [Last modified: Sunday, July 5, 2009 1:32am]
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