By Karen Pierog
CHICAGO (Reuters) - They're nothing special to look at, they can be noisy and some say that inside they smell like old gym shoes, but that's not all that's wrong with the three King Air 350 twin-propeller planes owned by the state of Illinois. For Governor Bruce Rauner, the trouble is that Chicago lawmakers, mostly Democrats, use the planes to fly to the state capital in Springfield.
Rauner, a former private equity executive who was elected as a Republican last November, is trying to cut costs and has threatened to eliminate the government air service that shuttles between Chicago and Springfield. Cancelling the flights would save $3 million a year, the state transportation department estimates.
While there are some Republicans in the Chicago suburbs who use the service, the state planes have taken on symbolic importance as Rauner jousts with Democratic leaders over ways to end years of big Illinois budget deficits. House Speaker Mike Madigan rode the state airplane 12 times from Jan. 12 to April 24, according to state records. State Senate President John Cullerton took it nine times during that period.
Lawmakers, state officials and staff authorized to ride the planes are billed $119.72 one-way for the approximately one hour flight between Chicago and Springfield, with the money paid from state accounts. There are two regularly scheduled flights a day on normal business days between Chicago and Springfield, one on the morning and one in the evening.
The state hasn't said how old the planes are, how it reckons it can save $3 million a year by cancelling the Chicago shuttle, or what it plans to do with the planes if they don't fly the shuttle. A used King Air 350 turboprop costs about $3 million or more.
The state's air operations fleet flew over 5,400 passengers in fiscal 2014, the Illinois transportation department said in its last annual report. Flying with a full load of nine passengers, that works out to about 600 flights a year, and would result in a charge to the state of about $648,000 at a fee of $120 per passenger.
Rauner's airplane gambit is "just another irritation and pressure," said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Rauner, who faces a July 1 deadline for a new state budget, has said in messages on his Twitter feed that he’s made the 195-mile trip from Chicago to Springfield in a 1993 Volkswagen van with the Twitter hash tag #rollingtrashcan.
"Need to pull up the antenna by hand in the #rollingtrashcan," one Tweet read. The messages have since been removed.
Rauner, the former chairman of private equity firm GTCR, himself reported adjusted gross income in 2013 of more than $60 million. While campaigning for governor he reported $306,000 in aircraft rides or airfare paid for by campaign contributors between October 2013 and November 2014, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Rauner has traveled by car while governor, except for once last week when he used a state helicopter to assess tornado damage, his spokeswoman said.
The flight to Springfield doesn't match the impression of luxury Rauner promoted when announcing plans to ground the shuttle, said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Democrat.
"If anyone is thinking it's Air Force One or the kind of plane Rauner in his previous life would fly, the answer is no," said Currie, who rode the shuttle 18 times during the January-April period.
The only onboard perquisite is an occasional self-service canister of coffee, Currie said.
One former state official, who asked not to be identified, said engine noise on the propeller-powered aircraft makes conversation difficult, and the odor onboard is redolent of "old gym shoe." Passengers face each other in two groupings of four facing seats, though Madigan sometimes sits in the jump seat, the former official said.
Republican State Representative Bill Mitchell, who said he has introduced bills to disband the shuttle service, said lawmakers should take Amtrak trains or drive.
"You don't need to be a grand muckety-muck and fly. It's just ridiculous," Mitchell said.
Rauner's plan for the state airplanes is just one facet of his effort to create pressure on lawmakers to pass what he calls his "turnaround agenda" and a new state budget. Rauner so far has refused to consider tax increases, which Democrats favor, until the legislature considers his calls for term limits, freezing local property taxes, changes to workers' compensation laws, legislative redistricting and limits on liability lawsuits.
Rauner has begun chiseling away at other spending programs dear to lawmakers. Construction projects targeted to specific districts, tourism outlays, fire fighter training and mass transit programs in the Chicago area all will be suspended if there is no budget by Wednesday.
Madigan has countered the governor's moves by conducting hearings and staging votes that seem designed to show there is little support for the governor's agenda.
Rauner on Thursday vetoed most of the piecemeal budget bills Democrats passed in support of their proposed $36.3 billion spending plan that relies on at least $3 billion in yet-to-be-identified new revenue.
Without a veto override or an enacted budget for fiscal 2016, which begins on Wednesday, most state payments will stop, including workers' paychecks.
Rauner has personalized the standoff, unleashing television advertising last week targeting Madigan "and the politicians he controls" for supporting tax hikes and ignoring his proposals. When the legislature passed a minor revision to workers' compensation laws, Rauner called it a "phony reform."
"The (Senate) president, the speaker and the governor's office are all dug in," said Tom Cross, the Illinois House Republican leader from 2002 to 2013. "Maybe this is like a boxing match where they are swinging pretty hard, but they're going to be worn out and then figure this out."
(Reporting by Karen Pierog, editing by David Greising and John Pickering)