Columns » Max Brantley

Flying first-class

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Symbols are powerful in politics.

When Mike Huckabee accepted more than $100,000 worth of gifts his first year as governor, it dictated a narrative for his decade in office.

The gift- and perk-rich Huckabee years set up a home-run pitch for incoming Gov. Mike Beebe. With just a modest effort, he could appear a model of self-denial. Hasn’t happened..

Beebe is continuing the Huckabee practice of using the Governor’s Mansion expense account for groceries and already has some Mansion and office re-do projects in the works.

Small stuff, I know. But bigger is travel. The Beebe administration also plans to get about in presidential style. Beebe and his wife both are using State Police escort service for trips in and out of town.

It’s silly. State troopers aren’t necessary for the first lady to travel safely to Home Depot. Two state troopers aren’t necessary for the governor to attend a Democratic governor’s meeting in Arizona. A governor can get more work done with a driver, but it need not be a trained law enforcement officer.

Most disappointing is Beebe’s lame excuse for moving by royal entourage. His spokesman points to a state statute, passed at the behest of Huckabee’s State Police director, Tom Mars. It says it shall be the responsibility of the State Police to provide security for the governor. This was passed to provide an excuse for Huckabee to use the State Police plane in his extensive travels. When questioned about the plane’s frequent use — or its whereabouts — he could always plead security, both as justification for the expense and to obscure the destination of his travels.

The statute does not say State Police shall provide security at all times. It’s a weak chief executive who believes he’d be overruled if he called up Steve Dozier, the head of the State Police, and said, “Colonel, tell your boys to stand down. I can fly out to Arizona for a little golfing without paying for a couple of your guys to fly along.”

No, you have to conclude Beebe wants that big plane at his disposal. He’s just won approval from the legislature to spend more than $4 million to replace the King Air Huckabee wore out.

It’s true that Beebe has taken one political trip on commercial carrier. But he could take many more flights on commercial carriers, including many that are official business. Many states get by without an executive aircraft, which this King Air will be. It might be cheaper, even if Southwest is too chintzy for the governor, to charter a plane rather than buy.

You can charter a King Air to Washington and back for about $12,000, plus $80 an hour for the two pilots’ waiting time. Add a day of waiting time and you’re still out $13,000. You can fly to Washington at that rate 307 times, or once a week every week for six years for the cost of a new King Air.

The $4 million, of course, isn’t the only cost. Pilots cost money. Hangars cost money. Fuel costs money.

If Beebe is determined to have a big plane and motor pool at his command, he shouldn’t play us for chumps. Spare us the fiction that security demands it. Spare us the fiction that the governor of Arkansas is powerless to tell the State Police director he appoints that he’s capable of driving himself around town. I didn’t buy it from Huckabee and I don’t buy it from Beebe.

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