State Politics

Legislators’ travel proves costly

MANATEE — State Sens. Arthenia Joyner and Mike Bennett claimed the most travel expenses among the local delegation serving in the upper chamber of the legislature, while Reps. Bill Galvano and House Speaker Pro Tem Ron Reagan claimed the most in the House, according to official records.

State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Sarasota, who was listed among the state’s “top five private fliers” in a report by the Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times last week, defended her choice of transportation, saying the “little rattletraps” she chartered with three others were hardly luxurious.

Bennett, R-Bradenton, also listed among the “top five private fliers,” declined to comment on his travel expenses. He said newspaper reports about the subject are biased, irrelevant and insinuate misdeeds that aren’t there.

“If the editor saw me walking across Sarasota Bay on top of the water, the next day the headline would say: ‘Bennett can’t swim,’ ” Bennett commented Friday.

Galvano and Reagan, both Bradenton Republicans, held top leadership positions in the House. They said their expenses were higher this year than in previous years because their official duties required more travel to Tallahassee.

“It’s every individual legislators’ fiduciary and moral responsibility to find the cheapest way to do it,” argued Robert Weissert, director of communications for Florida TaxWatch.

The Herald requested official legislative records covering travel expenses for the period from June 30, 2008, to July 1, 2009, for members of the local delegation.

Joyner, whose odd-shaped district juts like a tail into Manatee County, claimed $24,670.62: $9,217.21 in air fare, $894.33 for mileage and $14,559.08 in other expenses. Calls to her office for comment Thursday and Friday were not returned.

Bennett claimed $23,028.55: $10,824.50 in air fare, $124.60 in mileage and $12,079.45 in other expenses.

Detert claimed travel expenses of $17,151.71: $5,974 in air fare, $1,809.36 in mileage and $9,368.35 in other expenses.

Galvano claimed expenses totaling $15,711.77, while Reagan claimed $14,507.33 and Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, claimed $14,396.86, according to official records.

Of Galvano’s total, $1,452.20 comprised air fare, $5,268.34 mileage and $8,991.23 other expenses. Reagan’s total included $4,400.15 for air fare, $1,833.04 for mileage and $8,274.14 for other expenses.

Occupying the low end was Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, whose district dips into Manatee, with a claim of $9,634.28, and Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, at $7,458.27.

“Other” expenses include travel costs other than airfare, such as rental cars; reimbursement of meals and lodging expenses incurred performing official business outside of the formal legislative session (for example, attending regular committee meetings in the Capitol); and “session subsistence,” a $133 per diem rate paid to legislators based on their actual attendance during the legislative session, according to Jill Chamberlin, spokesperson for Speaker of the House Larry Cretul.

This year, the session lasted from March 3 through May 8.

Rather than driving or flying on commercial planes, Bennett and Detert occasionally billed taxpayers for the convenience of getting to Tallahassee on private chartered planes, according to the Herald’s Tallahassee bureau.

Bennett spent $4,756 and Detert $2,378 in air charter expenses.

Detert said four lawmakers had chartered private planes from Dolphin Aviation Inc., at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, to fly to Tallahassee.

But she argued that the creaky planes were competitively priced and faster, when compared to commercial flights from Tampa.

The foursomes including Detert, Bennett and Fort Myers Republican Garrett Richter, along with various other legislators, chartered the plane together at a cost of $400 per person each way, she said.

Commercial flights from Tampa cost from $354 to $454, she said.

“In the long run, what we’re shooting for is good government,” said Detert, who is the Senate majority whip and chair of the Committee on Education Pre-K-12. “I don’t know of anybody from our local delegation that’s abusing the system.”

Private planes were more convenient because commercial airlines do not serve Tallahassee directly: They fly from Tampa to Atlanta or Miami, then to Tallahassee.

“It’s all done on a reimbursement basis,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s all regulated. You can do a rental car, can do your own car and get reimbursed for gas and mileage, and can fly any way as long as it’s not more expensive than the commercial rate.”

“In the article about legislators on chartered planes, it sounds like we’re sitting on a Learjet sipping Champagne,” said Fitzgerald. “I only did it twice, but I’ll defend Bennett and the others. You’re sitting on a teeny plane, you can’t do it unless it’s cheaper than commercial, or out of your own pocket.”

He concluded, “I should have never done that, I just try to get up there as cheaply as possible.”

Galvano said he does not fly charters. Often, it’s more convenient for him to drive his car 315 miles from Bradenton to Tallahassee. Or he takes a commercial flight, he said.

Galvano’s expenses were higher this year than in previous years because of his work as chairman for two House committees, he added.

He served as the chairman of the House Rules and Calendar Council, one of the body’s most powerful committees because it sets the agenda for legislation; and he led the House Select Committee on Seminole Indian Compact Review, overseeing the state’s gambling compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe.

Tuesday, Galvano plans to be in Tallahassee again to chair committee hearings focusing on the ethical implications of an indictment of former House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, who is accused of steering millions of dollars to a local community college, where he also received a six-figure job offer.

“I had to spend time in Tallahassee others did not because I had to put together the rules before we had the organizational session,” Galvano explained last week. “The other impact this year was I chaired the Select Indian Gaming Committee — it met on Friday — which meant I had to stay an extra day every week so I could do the compact.

“But I try to be very cautious about travel, I’m not one to charter planes or do that type of thing,” he added.

Reagan had similar explanations.

“Lately, being speaker pro tem, I’ve been to meetings when nobody else had to go,” said Reagan. “There’s no easy way to get there from Bradenton, it’s a $500 flight from Tampa to Tallahassee.

“I try to get the cheapest flights when I fly. Whenever I drive, I get the cheapest mileage,” he said.

Rouson, whose travel expenses were among the lowest, said, “I have a very good job as a trial lawyer with Morgan & Morgan, and I try to contribute, recognizing the rough economic times we’re in, from my pocket towards some expenses.

“I just set a goal for myself to be frugal with state monies,” he said, adding he did not want to imply others are not, as some “have higher levels of responsibility.”

Legislators should always be looking for the most cost-effective way to travel, noted Weissert.

“We obviously encourage every legislator, and the legislature itself through its rules, to impose the strictest fiscal discipline,” he said. “Because this is the people’s money being used. They should always be looking for the most cost-effective way of getting to Tallahassee.”

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 708-7908 or at skennedy@bradenton.com.

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