What is it about airplanes and state government? Governor Stitt announced, as one of his first official executive orders last week that he would order the sale of the state airplane. The governor, a pilot and successful businessman doing business in multiple states, owned his own plane for business. However, he feels the state plane is not worth the $1 million per year it costs state taxpayers. Stitt says he also plans to sell his own airplane now that he’s governor.
I thought this sounded familiar, and I found a Daily Oklahoman article dated May 5, 1993 headlined, “Walters Orders State Plane Sold.” Governor David Walters, a Democrat, also a successful businessman who had not held elected office prior to being elected governor, said, “although the aircraft may be considered nice to have, I believe we can do without it and reallocate the resources to higher priority items.” If the state plane was sold in 1993, how is it that Governor Stitt is ordering it sold again in 2019? Easy answer: Three years after Gov. Walters sold the state plane his successor, Republican Gov. Frank Keating purchased a state plane with funds appropriated for that purpose by a Democratically controlled legislature. What goes around comes around.
Of course, this isn’t the only airplane the state owns, but it’s a nice one operated by the Department of Public Safety to be available for use by the governor, lieutenant governor, and other state officials. I remember flying on the state plane four times during the 1980s. The First time I flew to Houston with Sen. Rodger Randle at the request of Lt. Gov. Spencer Bernard to attend a dinner at the Japanese Consulate. We left in late afternoon after session and flew back the same night. In those days Japan was the big economic threat to the U.S., and Lt. Gov. Bernard was actively (and successfully) courting Japanese investment in the state. For reasons best known by him (or that I can’t recall) he wanted some legislative leaders to be present at the consulate function.
Two other flights were to attend in-state funerals. Lt. Gov. Bob Kerr invited legislators to accompany him on the plane to attend the funeral of the son of a State Representative who had been killed in an accident. The other was to attend the funeral of the brother of another House member, a law enforcement officer, who had been killed in the line of duty. A fourth flight was to Altus as a guest, with several other legislators and state officials, of then U.S. Senator David Boren to attend the state Summer Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain. I suppose one could argue either way whether those instances were worth the use of state resources.
The state airplane is low hanging fruit for a new governor who wants to show he’s frugal with taxpayer money. Most Oklahomans don’t have access to a private airplane and probably feel their public servants in Oklahoma City can live without it, too. But I’ll bet if Gov. Stitt waited a year to make that decision, he might not make the same choice. He’s going to be busy. And Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell is going to be busy, too. If they are going to sell Oklahoma as they want to, they may need the flexibility of frequently available air transportation.