(By Scott Reeder) – It costs $21 for a lawmaker to take the train between Chicago and Springfield, or about $65 for them to drive.
But it costs taxpayers $4,060 when lawmakers choose to fly a six-seat executive state plane between the two cities.
The practice has been going on for decades, but as the state struggles to pay its bills some are wondering if it is something Illinois can afford.
“Would getting rid of these planes solve the state’s budget problems? No. But it is of enormous symbolic value. The leaders seem unwilling to sacrifice,” said state Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, who has introduced legislation to eliminate most of the state’s fleet of executive aircraft.
But Steve Brown a spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan called Mitchell’s bill a “cheap publicity stunt.”
“I guess if you think a state as large as Illinois doesn’t need airplanes for state officials to get around, then you must be Bill Mitchell’s type of person,” he said.
One of the people co-sponsoring the legislation is state Rep. Don Moffitt, R-Gilson.
“I am sponsoring this because I think it will save the taxpayers money,” Moffitt said. “I take Amtrak whenever I can. If that is not available, I drive. As lawmakers, we have a responsibility to set a good example. … Now, having said that, I can’t speak to what the speaker of the House or the Senate president should do. I can only speak for myself.”
Moffitt said he has used state airplanes twice during his 21-year legislative career because there wasn’t a convenient alternative, and Mitchell said he has never flown on a state plane.
Using the state’s open records laws, the Illinois News Network obtained copies of the flight logs for the state’s four legislative leaders from July 1, 2012, through June 30, 2013.
During that period, Senate President John Cullerton booked 7,906 miles on state aircraft, Madigan flew 4,526 miles and Senate GOP Leader Christine Radogno rode state planes 438 miles.
House GOP Leader Tom Cross did not use the state airplanes at all during that period.
“These legislative leaders just think they are entitled,” Mitchell said. “There is no reason they can’t ride Amtrak to Springfield or drive like everybody else.”
But Brown said it is far more time efficient for Madigan to use the state plane, which lands and takes off from Midway International Airport, near the speaker’s home.
He added that Madigan usually uses regularly scheduled state flights that would operate whether he was aboard or not.
But Mitchell said that misses the point, because no one but the governor should have access to state aircraft.
The state executive aircraft fleet consists of four King Air 350 airplanes and two Sikorsky S-76 helicopters. The Illinois Department of Transportation also operates 10 utility aircraft used in road surveying and other endeavors.
Other states, such as New Mexico, have cut back on their airplane fleets during the economic downturn.
Mitchell is quick to point out that rank-and-file lawmakers have cut back on how much taxpayers pay them to commute to Springfield by car.
“Right now, we get reimbursed at a rate of 31 cents for each mile we drive – that’s far below the recommended federal reimbursement rate,” he said. In fact, the Internal Revenue Service recommends that employers reimburse employees at a rate of 56.5 cents per mile.
But how much does it cost to fly the airplane?
The Illinois Department of Transportation places the number at $4,892 per hour.
That would place the 50-minute, 146-mile flight between Springfield and Chicago’s Midway International Airport at $4,076, or $27.92 per mile in a King Air 350 airplane.
By way of comparison: · The current Amtrak rate for a one-way ticket between Springfield and Chicago is $21. · When driving the 207 road miles between Chicago and Springfield, lawmakers are reimbursed at a rate of 31 cents per mile, which equals $64.17.
· According to faremeasure.com, the average commercial flight ticket between Chicago O’Hare International Airport and Springfield was $131 during the last three months.
A spokeswoman for Cross said he has refrained from taking the state airplanes because of the state’s budget problems. She added Cross, who lives in Oswego, commutes to Springfield by car and uses the time on the road to make phone calls.
A spokesperson for Cullerton said, “Using the state plane’s shuttle flights is one way for lawmakers to maximize and balance the time split between district duties and Springfield work.”
Madigan’s spokesman, Brown, said it is worth noting that legislative use of the state airplanes is far below that of those working in the executive branch.
But an analysis of travel logs found that often Madigan and Cullerton are accompanied by other lawmakers when they travel between the state capital and Chicago.
“When the pope was archbishop of Buenos Aires, he rode the bus to work every day,” Mitchell said. “If public transportation is good enough for the pope, why isn’t it good enough for our state legislative leaders?”