SPRINGFIELD – Despite its budget woes, the state of Illinois continues to operate a fleet of executive aircraft that ferries legislators, Supreme Court justices and statewide elected officials between Springfield and Chicago.
The cost of operating the planes far exceeds alternative forms of travel such as Amtrak and driving.
“This is something the state of Illinois just can’t afford to do anymore,” said state Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth. “Back in 2010, the state spent $5.4 million operating its air fleet. This year, they are spending $7.3 million. That’s a 35 percent increase in just four years. With all of the financial problems our state is having, we just shouldn’t be spending money like this anymore.”
Mitchell noted that the governor of New Mexico recently ordered the sale of that state’s airplane as a cost cutting move.
Illinois operates four executive King Air planes, mainly between Chicago and Springfield. It’s a practice the state has been engaging in for decades.
But it’s an expensive proposition.
It costs $21 for a state employee to take the train between Chicago and Springfield or about $65 for them to drive, based on the mileage reimbursement rate for state lawmakers.
But it costs taxpayers $4,060 when lawmakers or others choose to fly a six-seat executive airplane between the two cities.
While the planes are widely viewed as a perquisite for legislative leaders and statewide elected officials, the reality is they are also used extensively by rank-and-file lawmakers and a bevy of state bureaucrats.
Illinois News Network obtained all the state airplane’s flight logs for 2013 and reviewed them to determine how frequently various elected officials are using the aircraft.
Gov. Pat Quinn used the plane the most, booking 21,134 miles.
“I think the governor is the only person who should be allowed to use the state plane,” Mitchell said. “Illinois is a big state and if the governor needs to fly from Chicago to Cairo at a moment’s notice, that just makes sense. But as for the rest of these people, they ought to be able to drive.”
Mitchell has introduced legislation to eliminate the state air fleet. But the measure has languished in committee for more than a year.
State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, also questions the value of a state airplane ferrying lawmakers to and from Springfield.
“I drive because I like to have a car when I’m here in Springfield,” he said. “Not only that, you don’t really save much time flying once you factor in traveling to the airport. I get a lot business done on the drive to Springfield. I can make phone calls, which I can’t do on the airplane. And I even get to listen to some good books on tape.”
Interestingly enough, Illinois Supreme Court spokesman Joe Tybor used the opposite justification for members of the high court using the planes.
“They can work while they are on the plane, but can’t when they are driving,” he said. “Also, their time is valuable and this is the fastest way for justices living in Chicago to get to Springfield.”
In 2013, Supreme Court justices booked 14,846 miles on the state plan.
The Illinois Constitution requires all of the state’s constitutional officers to maintain a residence in the Springfield area. Yet, no statewide elected official has made Springfield his or her primary residence.
This results in frequent flights to the state capital.
In fact, in 2013 the state’s six elected constitutional officers flew 34,410 miles.
Illinois’ population center is far removed from its capital city. Springfield is 200 miles from Cook County, which has 40 percent of the state’s population.
But this is not a unique situation.
For example Clark County, Nev., has 73 percent of that state’s population but is 424 miles from the state capital of Carson City.
“All of our statewide office holders, except the attorney general, live within easy driving distance of the state capital,” said Cy Ryan, a statehouse reporter for the Las Vegas Sun who has been covering Nevada politics since the 1960s.
Ryan added that while the Nevada Department of Transportation officials and the governor use a state plane between Carson City and Las Vegas, all other state officials must come up with an alternative form of transportation.
“If they want to travel to Las Vegas, they either take Southwest Airlines out of Reno, or just drive,” he said.
Rank-and-file state lawmakers, as well as legislative leaders, routinely use Illinois state aircraft for their commute to Springfield.
In fact, in 2013, lawmakers flew 113,196 miles on state aircraft.
“To the extent that rank-and-file lawmakers are taking advantage of these perks, they need to be very wary in how they comport themselves and what messages their actions send to the public,” said Mike Lawrence, former senior policy advisor to Gov. Jim Edgar and past director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
Scott Reeder writes for Illinois News Network