Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The $tate Airplane – $mart Expenditure or Frivolous Waste?

From planners and engineers to the governor, state airplanes shuttle public employees around the region for meetings and events. While private planes have long been considered a necessary business tool, their use by public employees, regardless of title, often draws the ire of the public who find it a waste of taxpayers’ money. It is the use of such planes by the governor, of course, which draws the most criticism.

In South Dakota, the governor’s purchase of a 6th state airplane ($1.4 million) without legislature consent (none was technically needed) raised questions from numerous state lawmakers as to its need. In addition, causing greater public anger was the discovery that he used the planes to attend 7 of his son’s high school basketball games throughout the state. While personal use of the planes was reimbursed through his political donations fund, it did little to calm the public’s anger. Such controversies on how public money is being used for airplanes has now become a policy issue on which candidates for governor must take a stand – pro-plane or anti-plane . Governor Rounds insists, however, that the planes save thousands of hours of lost productivity during travel. The argument that work productivity is higher during air travel may be brought into question, however, when one considers that the governor (a licensed pilot) often flew the planes himself.

Wisconsin proves no different as then candidate Jim Doyle criticized incumbent governor Scott McCallum for using state airplanes too much . Once governor, however, Jim Doyle faced criticism on his frequent use of the state planes, which cost a total of $2 million a year to operate. During his tenure, Governor Doyle has flown nearly 200,000 miles on the planes. While he has flown less than his predecessors, the fact that he flies at all is enough for critics.

In Minnesota, 2 state airplanes operated by the DOT are routinely used by state employees to reach far flung areas of the state. While their use is encouraged by the Office of Aeronautics as a means of saving public money through more efficient travel, its use by the governor still draws criticism. A reporter with MPR calculated one day’s air travel by Governor Pawlenty in 2008 and figured $3,755.05 was spent to shuttle the governor and his education commissioner to multiple stops around the state. While accomplishing the same amount of travel by car would have taken far longer and needed to include lodging and other expenses, critics are not assuaged.

And finally, South Carolina’s Governor Sanford (no stranger to criticism...) has not helped the state airplane win more fans. It has been reported that his use of the state airplane included a $1,265 flight to get his haircut and $5,536 for him and his family to travel 2 hours from their home to the state capital for the annual Christmas tree lighting. The public’s bill for the airplanes use by the Governor and his family alone has totaled nearly $400,000 during his time in office.

While state airplanes do serve a function in providing efficient transportation for government employees, is its cost to the public justified?

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