Tuesday, July 27, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Keet claims he’ll fly less

To Jim Keet we are all indebted for resurrecting the gubernatorial travel follies. Nothing will come of it, but people enjoy reminders from time to time of the rich tradition of keeping the Arkansas’ chief executives safe and comfortable on their travels around the land.

Keet is running for governor and has been searching for issues that show Mike Beebe as a spendthrift and he as a Scrooge with the taxpayers’ dime. So Keet said Monday that if he is elected, he would demand that the State Police sell its 2007 model King Air turboprop and when he or the State Police needed to travel they would lease a privately owned plane at taxpayers’ expense, which he said would be a saving.

The State Police don’t want to sell the plane and start leasing aircraft because it is used for law-enforcement missions as well as hauling the governor and sometimes the flights have to be in the dead of night or at a moment’s notice. Beebe didn’t evince any interest either way. An aide said it was a State Police plane and its call and that Keet was just trying to grab headlines. He did.

Gubernatorial travel has been a political issue off and on for 50 years. Until the 1990s, governors were driven to and from work and to functions around the state in state cars by his State Police-provided security detail. If governors needed to fly someplace, they would find a private plane and reimburse the owner. Bill Clinton was the first governor to do much of that.

Winthrop Rockefeller owned his own Lear jet, which flew him around the state and across the country, and he didn’t charge the state for it. Governors’ use of state vehicles and State Police drivers and bodyguards was frequent campaign fodder.

Gov. Jim Guy Tucker took a few trips in the ’90s on the Army surplus helicopters or small planes that had been donated to the State Police by the federal government for law-enforcement work. The new lieutenant governor, Mike Huckabee, heard about it in 1993 and began using the planes, too. In Gov.Tucker’s last 18 months in office, he flew State Police planes (he was a pilot and often flew them himself) 49 times and Huckabee flew in them 30 times.

When Huckabee became governor in July 1996, he told the State Police to buy a better plane for him and to include it in the State Police appropriation so it would not appear as an expense of the governor’s office. The State Police bought a 1981 model King Air and it was used almost exclusively by Huckabee, his wife Janet and their family, friends and staff. They used the King Air or smaller State Police planes to go to their weekend retreat on Lake Greeson near Murfreesboro. State Police pilots flew Huckabee about 1,500 hours on the King Air — to Republican conventions and conferences and political events around the state and country. Mrs. Huckabee and her friends used it often, several times to visit a friend in Oklahoma City. The State Police log for the plane always said “official travel” and the governor’s office always refused to identify Mrs. Huckabee’s official duties that caused her to need the law-enforcement plane.

When Beebe took office in 2007, the State Police wanted to refurbish the King Air or buy a new one because Huckabee had worn it out. It would have taken $800,000 to renovate it and make it safe and it still would be 25 years old. The agency decided to buy a new one for $4 million. The State Police said it is essential for its criminal work, citing examples this year when the plane was used at a moment’s notice to fly evidence from a shooting of two West Memphis police officers for testing and a quick flight to Washington to interview a suspect in a murder in Cross County.

Gov. Beebe has used the State Police far less often than Huckabee used it. For instance, Beebe in his first year in office flew out of the state only twice compared with Huckabee’s 21 state-paid trips out of the state in his last year.

Keet said he’s not going to offer any particular criticism of the way Gov. Beebe or Mike Huckabee used the planes. We imagine not. Huckabee, now a Florida resident, is supporting Keet for governor, including making a nice donation to his campaign. A protracted discussion of taxpayer-supported travel will not make Huckabee happy.

Keet figured he could lease a plane for $2,500 an hour and save the state some money. But what if Keet traveled as much as Mike Huckabee did instead of the few trips that Beebe takes? That would be almost $4 million in lease expenses right there.

And what if Keet’s wife, like Huckabee’s, wanted to use it for her pleasure as well? The state would be losing some big bucks.

If Jim Keet is elected governor, let’s revisit this issue again a year from now. Mike Huckabee used to talk a good game of tight-fisted budgeting and cutting taxes — in fact, he still does — but he became the biggest spendthrift and taxer in the state’s history. Who can say? His protégé might be different.