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Lawmakers fly free on taxpayers' tab

It costs thousands of dollars for legislators to use state planes to fly home - even though the law restricts the planes from commuting purposes.

By ALISA ULFERTS
Published November 23, 2003

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King Carlton

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Byrd Klein

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Saunders Wasserman Schultz

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
One of the state planes legislators have used on personal trips sits in a hangar at Tallahassee Regional Airport. Senate President Jim King has made dozens of personal flights on the planes this year.

TALLAHASSEE - It had been a tough week for Senate President Jim King.

Another special session on medical malpractice had ended, and summer's heat was unrelenting. So King left the state capital July 11 for the cooling waters of the St. Johns River.

The Jacksonville millionaire caught a small plane to Palatka. From there King headed to his river house in nearby Welaka. Three days later, the same plane took him back to Tallahassee.

King has made that trip dozens of times this year. Chartering a private plane roundtrip between Tallahassee and Palatka would cost about $4,000.

But state planes carried King to his riverhouse and back, even though Florida law restricts the planes to official state business.

Commuting doesn't count.

King's justification: Everybody does it.

Indeed, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd has taken a state plane about a dozen times this year for weekend trips to or from home in Plant City, often with his family. Even rank-and-file senators have used state planes to fly between Tallahassee and home this year.

But no lawmaker has spent more tax money flying state planes this year than King, a Republican.

The Legislature has spent more than $75,000 so far this year on state plane trips and about a third of that was for flights home, according to a review of records by the St. Petersburg Times. King spent more than $8,000 of the total on personal trips.

"I was well aware, having flown with John McKay and other Senate presidents, that this was a common practice," King said, referring to his predecessor.

* * *

King's office also said Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings used state planes to fly home during her four years as Senate president.

"If you can prove to me that I broke the law then I will change my operation," King said.

As a Republican state senator from St. Petersburg, Charlie Crist criticized Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles for using state planes for political purposes in the 1990s.

Crist requested an opinion from then-Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who concluded that state law "excludes the use of state vehicles or aircraft for personal business or commuting purposes."

An auditor general's report echoed that finding, and Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, a Democrat, reimbursed the state for trips from his Ocala home to Tallahassee.

Now Crist is attorney general. He said his opinion on the use of state planes is the same as Butterworth's, a Democrat.

"I think he wrote a good opinion," Crist said. "I think it's still valid."

Policy at odds with law

Kay Larkin Municipal Airport sits at the end of a long driveway off Reid Street just outside downtown Palatka. It has a tiny, one-room schoolhouse of a terminal. The airport manager's office could fit inside a walk-in closet. But the coffee is hot and the building proudly bears an American flag and a monument to Larkin, a local resident who died in a World War II training accident.

The airport has about 50,000 takeoffs and landings a year, but no commercial flights. A hangar shelters small private planes, and others park outside the terminal. The airport's three full-time employees are helped out occasionally by interns from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

King is such a frequent flier he pays $10 a month for a parking space and paid to build a modest carport to shade his sport utility vehicle.

"The state plane flies in here and drops him off at his vehicle and off it goes," said airport manager Mike Cavallo.

Cavallo said the Senate president has been a boon to Palatka. A business park recently opened next to the airport and has thrived from the attention of powerful people like King and U.S. Rep. John Mica, Cavallo said. Both have met with city leaders, even though Palatka and Welaka are well outside King's Jacksonville district.

"We're really happy to have our political leaders come through," Cavallo said.

Most days King is just passing through. His destination is a 30-minute drive south. Welaka (population 586) calls itself the Bass Capital of the World and boasts a single traffic light. King, who has fought to save the nearby Rodman Dam that is key to Welaka's bass fishing, owns a home on the St. Johns River.

It's here that King retreats on weekends to fish and relax. Like most on the river, his tan-colored house has a boat dock out back.

Records show King made at least 31 one-way trips to or from Palatka this year. He usually flies in on Friday or Saturday. The plane often returns empty to Tallahassee, flies back empty to Palatka, picks up King and returns to Tallahassee on Sunday.

Senate's General Counsel Steve Kahn defends King's use of state planes by arguing that the definition of commuting isn't clear in state law. Senate policy allows state planes to be used to travel home if that is the most efficient way to get there. But that policy appears to conflict with state law.

Were King to charter a plane, he would pay about $4,000 per round trip. It would be cheaper and take less time if King spent weekends at his Jacksonville house. But he prefers Welaka.

"The taxpayers should not be footing the bill for anything that isn't state business," said Dominic Calabro, president of Florida Taxwatch, a Tallahassee government watchdog.

"Clearly the intent of the law is to use state taxpayer funded assets only for state business."

King said he takes the law seriously and has run everything past Kahn.

"His comment to me was that I was completely in compliance," King said.

Unlike Senate presidents who often went home on Thursday, King said he doesn't leave until Friday or even Saturday and returns to the capital on Sunday instead of Monday. Driving the four hours to Welaka would leave him little time with his family, he said.

Using the state plane "looked like a good way to balance those needs," King said.

"Standard operating procedure'

It has been five years since the state auditor general said taxpayers should not pay for then-Gov. Chiles to attend college football games or to pick up then-Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay at his Ocala home.

After analyzing dozens of flights the two men made on state planes, auditors concluded that Chiles should reimburse taxpayers $1,145 for personal trips and MacKay should pay $664.88 for the costs of diverting a state plane that was headed elsewhere to pick him up in Ocala.

The controversy, widely covered by Florida newspapers, appears to have had little effect on lawmakers, some of whom have flown state planes even when commercial service is readily available.

Gov. Jeb Bush frequently flies home to Miami on a state plane, but state law allows that for security reasons. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says it's difficult to ensure his safety on commercial flights.

This year, the Senate has been billed about $50,000 to fly state planes and the House about $25,000.

The cost is what the state aircraft pool billed the Legislature for fuel and partial pilot costs, not the full operational costs paid for by taxpayers. In addition, taxpayers pay $1.3-million per year in fixed overhead for the fleet.

All lawmakers are entitled to be reimbursed for auto mileage or airfare for weekend trips home when the Legislature is in session.

But a state plane can't be used.

The three state planes, all King Air turboprops with either six or eight seats, are kept at a hangar at the Tallahassee airport. The state is about to sell an older plane seized from drug smugglers and replace it with a new one costing almost $8-million. State planes are assigned on a priority basis, with the governor, lieutenant government, members of the Cabinet, Senate president, House speaker and Supreme Court chief justice getting first seating. After that comes other lawmakers and state employees.

The planes are intended to help state executives travel to meetings in a sprawling state. Many Florida cities, like Palatka and even Naples, have no commercial air service.

The Department of Management Services oversees the planes but relies on passengers to ensure the flights meet criteria for official business. The state administrative code requires agency heads to report misuse of the planes to the comptroller, now Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher.

Sens. Burt Saunders, R-Naples, Lisa Carlton, R-Sarasota, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, have used the planes frequently to fly home to their districts, often over the weekend. To save money, King said they often flew with him to Palatka and then to their districts.

The senators said King approved their use of a state plane.

Even so, House Democratic leader Doug Wiles, who hasn't flown on the state plane this year, said lawmakers need to remember who pays the tab.

"Anytime that there's even an appearance of misuse we should avoid that at all costs," said Wiles, D-St. Augustine.

Former Senate President John McKay and his lobbyist wife, Michelle, frequently flew to his Bradenton district on weekends and back to Tallahassee.

"My staff told me that it was standard operating procedure," said McKay, who left office in 2002. Taking the state plane home was the only way he could balance his Senate work with his private real estate business, McKay said.

"To rely on the less than satisfactory commercial service in Tallahassee would have been foolish," he said.

Jennings did not respond to requests for comment.

Byrd said he sees flying state planes home for weekends as official state business.

"We have a state plane and we use it for state purposes," Byrd said. He uses a state plane when other transportation isn't readily available, he said.

Besides, Byrd said, "I don't use it as often as other people."

At 3:09 p.m. on Friday, House General Counsel Tom Tedcastle sent a memo to all House members defining "commuting" as travel between a lawmaker's residence and the district office. Travel between Tallahassee and home, he wrote, doesn't count.

- Times researcher Connie Humburg contributed to this report.

[Last modified November 23, 2003, 01:46:45]


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