Cash flying; taxpayers on hook

TALLAHASSEE — Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who is running for governor on a platform of fiscal discipline, has logged hundreds of flights on state planes, often including side trips for her and family members to their home near Tampa.

Attorney General Bill McCollum — also running for governor — has cost taxpayers much less money in travel but frequently dispatches an empty plane to pick him up from the airport in Sanford, 13 miles from his Longwood home, at additional cost to the state.

Sink, a Democrat, and McCollum, a Republican, are rivals for the state’s top seat in 2010 and both have used state aircraft to help them maintain regular access to their permanent homes. That has raised questions about whether they are as protective of public money as they claim.

Sink defends her travel as “important to get around the state and talk to people outside of Tallahassee.” She says she reimburses the state for all flights by family members, and notes that she pushed and succeeded in getting state plane logs to be posted online.

“When I came into office — before I even stepped foot on a state plane — I asked the aircraft service what the rules were and the guidelines for family members’ travel and I have followed those guidelines,” she said. “I have been trying to play by the rules.”

State law requires Cabinet members to maintain a legal residence in Tallahassee; McCollum and Sink have second homes in the capital. But the law prohibits them from using a state plane to commute to get to their state jobs.

While both McCollum and Sink say they use the state plane only for official duties and those often include events near their hometowns, records from the Department of Management Services show both have also used it to get home to Central Florida.

On June 13, 2007, for example, Sink and two staffers flew to Orlando for an insurance fraud conference and on the return flight stopped in Tampa to pick up Sink’s son, Bert McBride, for the trip back to Tallahassee. Two days later, Sink and staff members left Tallahassee, stopped in Tampa to drop off her son, and then continued to Orlando for a Florida Credit Union luncheon. The cost of diverting the flights to Tampa: $2,925.

On several occasions, McCollum dispatched an empty plane from Tallahassee to his home to take him to events around the state. Often the plane would return him to Central Florida and fly back to Tallahassee with no passengers.

One such example: On Feb. 3, 2007, a state plane went to Sanford to get McCollum, who attended funerals in the Panhandle for two murder victims: the wife of a sheriff and a sheriff’s deputy. After the funerals, the plane flew McCollum back home to Sanford and the empty plane flew back to Tallahassee. The extra cost of flying from Tallahassee to Sanford and back for McCollum: $1,950, according to state flight records.

Senate budget chief Sen. J.D. Alexander of Winter Haven has been a longtime critic of the tendency of state officials to mix business and personal convenience on the same trip. He has been frustrated in his attempts to tighten the use of state planes and was unable to persuade fellow legislators this spring to sell a second state plane.

Alexander said he understands the need for travel but doesn’t want taxpayers to foot the bill unfairly. “It’s just when every weekend they’ve got a meeting in their hometown, I don’t feel good about that,” he said.

As Cabinet members, Sink and McCollum’s travel is largely unregulated. They are considered “priority one” fliers, in the same category as the governor and lieutenant governor, among others.