Curtailing use of state planes not on lawmakers' list of cuts

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

SPRINGFIELD — Lawmakers are proposing a wide variety of ways to cut the woefully out-of-balance budget, but curbing their use of state aircraft is not at the top of the list.

Dozens of lawmakers fly between Chicago and Springfield on the state's fleet of four executive airplanes at discounted rates subsidized by taxpayers, according to Illinois Department of Transportation records.

Legislators who've taken the most flights defended their use of state planes, saying they would get reimbursed for mileage if they drove.

"I use my travel allowance to take the state plane," said Rep. Karen May, D- Highland Park, who flew on the state plane 29 times from last July through early April, third-most among lawmakers.

But it costs more to fly than drive. At the state's 50 cents per mile reimbursement rate, it costs about $100 per trip to reimburse lawmakers who drive from Chicago to the Capitol, a distance of about 200 miles. It costs about $270 per trip for lawmakers to take the state plane, according to the Illinois auditor general's office.

The state vastly undercharges lawmakers for flying privileges, the auditor has found. An average one-way flight on a state plane between Chicago and Springfield is billed at $99.28. That price should be about $170 more per trip, the auditor general has concluded for several years.

Taxpayers foot the bill either way, but the money comes out of the state transportation agency instead of the General Assembly's budget. It costs nearly $3.5 million a year to keep in the air the four planes used by lawmakers and statewide elected officials, the auditor's office has found.

Transportation spokeswoman Marisa Kollias said the department looks every year at how much flights cost. "We are still reviewing operating costs this year to determine if there will be a change," she said.

Republican Rep. Bill Black of Danville is pushing legislation calling for suspension of state-funded air travel and selling part of the state's air fleet, which includes 16 airplanes and helicopters. But the proposals have been buried in the Democrat-controlled House. Black has used state aircraft for two trips in the past 10 months, but he said he paid the fare out of his own pocket.

"The state is flat broke and yet we attempt to justify flying people all over the state of Illinois," Black said.

Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, is the top user of the air fleet among lawmakers, flying 43 times over a 10-month period ending in early April. House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, took 31 trips, putting him second among lawmakers.

May said she takes the state plane because of the toll it takes on her previously injured neck and shoulders to make the 3 1/2-hour drive or train ride to Springfield and then work a full day.

"I would love nothing more than to have the trains be more reliable, but to take the train I've got to get up at 5 a.m.," May said.

Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat who logged 27 trips, said costs should be adjusted to cover the nearly hourlong plane trips but that "there's valuable time lost (when we drive) and I think that should be recognized."

"I do it because of the convenience, because I'm not a great night driver," said Raoul, who was fifth among lawmakers taking the state plane.