Senate chief took wing 111 times on state fleet in '07

Statewide officials log the most trips, but Senate President Pruitt isn't far behind.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published January 3, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - He answers to the title of Senate president, but Ken Pruitt earned another one in 2007: frequent flier.

As four special sessions tested the Legislature's part-time status, Pruitt led the pack of lawmakers who used the state's air fleet to avoid long drives or infrequent and expensive commercial flights.

The Port St. Lucie Republican flew on state planes 111 times at a total cost of about $24,000, according to Bureau of Aircraft records.

That made Pruitt the fifth-most-frequent flier on Florida's air fleet in a year when official travel jumped nearly 200,000 miles. Pruitt's trips trail Gov. Charlie Crist, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson.

"We had a lot of special sessions this year, and he lives in an area not well served by airlines into Tallahassee," said Kathy Mears, Pruitt's spokeswoman and deputy chief of staff.

For much of his 17 years in the Legislature, Pruitt made the roughly 600-mile round trip from Tallahassee to St. Lucie County by car. But being Senate president demanded his presence in Tallahassee a lot more, Mears said.

Some of Pruitt's lieutenants weren't far behind. Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, flew 95 times; Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, 65 times; Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, 49 times; and Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, 39 times. The state counts each leg of a flight as a separate trip.

Atwater is in line to succeed Pruitt as Senate president, and Carlton was the Senate's top budget expert in a year dominated by the need to cut more than $1-billion in spending. Haridopolos and Webster played key roles in drafting property tax legislation.

Taxpayers pay for legislators to travel to and from the state capital, and most drive personal cars or fly commercial, but a round-trip ticket often exceeds $500, and the flight may go through Atlanta.

The state owns a Cessna Citation Bravo jet and two King Air prop planes for official use mainly by Crist and other statewide officials. Legislators can fly on them when seats are available.

All told, the three planes logged more than 900,000 miles in 2007 at a cost of just over $1-million. That's more than in 2006, when the planes traveled about 700,000 miles at a cost of $861,000.

Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Winter Haven, who oversees the aircraft bureau's budget, unsuccessfully proposed selling two of the planes in October to save money. With services facing cuts, Alexander said, "I can't justify a bunch of politicians flying around," according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Crist flew more than any other official, with 251 trips totaling 115,000 miles, nearly all of it in Florida. He flew to areas devastated by tornadoes in Lady Lake and DeLand. He used the planes to attend the funerals of police officers, survey wildfires, promote hurricane preparedness, attend community forums and meet with editorial boards.

Crist's predecessor, Jeb Bush, flew 280 times in his last year in office.

On 21 occasions, Crist's state travel ended at St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport, near the downtown condo where he often spends weekends. Crist sometimes took commercial flights back to Tallahassee on Mondays.

Other times, Crist used private jets to attend political events. Such travel is often paid for by the Republican Party of Florida.

Kottkamp, the lieutenant governor, made 142 trips on state planes in 2007. CFO Sink made 128 trips, followed by Agriculture Commissioner Bronson's 114 and Attorney General Bill McCollum's 59. Chief Justice Fred Lewis of the state Supreme Court did not ride on a state plane in 2007, according to records.

House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, flew just four times on a state plane in the past year. Three of those legs were as a guest of Crist, his spokeswoman said, and Rubio generally did not seek to use a state plane.

Rubio either flew commercially or, if his travel included a combination of official and political events, on chartered planes paid for by the Republican Party, said Rubio spokeswoman Jill Chamberlin.

"The decision that was made in an abundance of caution was that as often as possible, the party would pay when he had to fly. Out of that, it has become a practice," Chamberlin said.

The House member who logged the most miles on state planes in 2007 was Rep. Michael Grant, R-Port Charlotte, who flew 16 times. Records show several southwest Florida legislators frequently on the same manifests.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

Fast facts

Priority passengers

Under state law, eight officials are first in line for state aircraft use:

Governor; lieutenant governor; Cabinet members (attorney general, chief financial officer, agriculture commissioner); Senate president; House speaker; and chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

The second tier for priority aircraft use includes:

Supreme Court justices; executive branch agency heads; legislative committee chairmen; chairmen of the Public Service Commission and Parole Commission; and chancellors of the education system.

Source: Department of Management Services