TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A mechanical problem Friday with a seized drug plane being used to shuttle Gov. Ron DeSantis throughout the state has revived talk of new or improved air transportation for the governor and, maybe, members of the Florida Cabinet.
But if the state returns to an air fleet that would include Cabinet use, expect tighter controls than when personal use of the state’s former planes turned into a campaign issue in 2010.
New Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and House Speaker Jose Oliva raised the possibility of discussing air-transport issues Friday, shortly after a twin-engine King Air carrying DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and four members of DeSantis’ staff was forced to make an emergency landing in St. Petersburg while flying from Tallahassee to Fort Lauderdale.
The King Air is a seized drug plane, which DeSantis used during his initial days in office after former Gov. Rick Scott ditched the old air fleet following the 2010 election. DeSantis used a chartered plane Monday to fly to Miami-Dade County to announce the appointment of appellate Judge Robert Luck to the Florida Supreme Court.
“Today’s incident, combined with the sheer size of our state, starkly reminds us that we need a safe and reliable means of transportation for the chief executive,” Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said Friday. “The House stands ready to work with the governor’s office to ensure such transportation is obtained.”
Senate President Bill Galvano added his support to join the talks, with spokeswoman Katie Betta saying Monday he “is happy to review options regarding more reliable and safe transportation.”
Fried, an attorney from Fort Lauderdale, said Friday’s incident underscored the importance of dependable transportation also for Cabinet members.
“As statewide public servants in one of the largest states in the nation, an efficient method of air transportation is prudent to best serve our constituents, conduct state business and carry out the duties of our offices,” Fried said in a statement. “Cost-effective and responsible use of state aircraft would enhance our situational response and our availability to the people of Florida.”
When asked about the travel issue, Moody spokeswoman Lauren Schenone replied that “Florida is an extremely large state and it is essential to continually meet with constituents in every corner of it. Any state air travel conducted should be in accordance with the law and with respect for the taxpayers.”
Katie Strickland, a spokeswoman for the other Cabinet member, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, focused on DeSantis’ need to travel.
“Having access to a plane will allow Governor DeSantis to better serve Floridians,” Strickland said in an email.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has provided little information about the seized King Air, which DeSantis has said he is using in the department’s capacity of providing security in his travels.
“Similarly to them taking me by car, FDLE does have a plane that was seized,” DeSantis told reporters last week.
The FDLE does not provide similar services to Cabinet members.
Scott, who was sworn into the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, made the state’s ownership of a pair of airplanes --- a Beech King Air 350 and a Cessna Citation Bravo --- and employment of flight crews a campaign issue when he first ran for governor in 2010.
While the two planes were supposed to be for necessary official travel, they had been at the center of allegations of misuse.
Former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp and former Juvenile Justice Secretary Frank Peterman were accused of ethics violations because of their use of aircraft. The complaint against Kottkamp was dismissed, but Peterman repaid money to the state and faced a fine upheld by the state ethics commission.
During the 2010 campaign, then-Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and then-Attorney General Bill McCollum were criticized for using the planes to travel back home.
As the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Sink’s credentials as an economic watchdog were questioned by a Republican group, which ran ads knocking her use of the planes, dubbing the state fleet "Air Alex."
Scott beat McCollum in the Republican gubernatorial primary before topping Sink in the general election.
The cost to fly the state planes was more than $3,000 an hour, or about $2.4 million a year. Once Scott was in office, the Department of Management Services accepted a bid for $1.9 million for a state jet and $1.8 million for a prop plane. Scott also ordered the agency to lay off 11 people who worked in the state air pool.
The changes were possible because Scott’s wealth allowed him to use his personal aircraft.