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Grounding state air fleet to save $3M, affect dozens of officials

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SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Bruce Rauner's decision to ground the state air fleet will save an estimated $3 million in the next fiscal year, but it also will mean a change in travel plans for dozens of state employees and top officials.

A review of state transportation records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act shows the planes are regularly used by Democratic members of the House and Senate, Illinois Supreme Court justices and statewide officials of both parties such as Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Comptroller Leslie Munger and Secretary of State Jesse White.

The records show top agency officials as well as rank-and-file employees also use the shuttle to conduct business in Chicago and Springfield.

Beginning July 1, however, they will have to find another way to get between the state's largest city and its capital 200 miles to the south.

Rauner, who doesn't use the planes, announced the grounding Tuesday as part of his response to a budget approved by Democrats that is unbalanced by more than $3 billion.

Along with stopping the shuttle, he is threatening to close a prison work camp in southern Illinois and up to two juvenile prisons. He also plans to stop financing a low-income heating assistance program and make it harder for some seniors to receive services.

The planes have long been a political target, with lawmakers each year introducing legislation to do away with the three-decade-old service.

Each weekday, the nine-passenger commuter aircraft make two round trips between Springfield and Chicago.

Among the more frequent users is Randy Blankenhorn, who oversees the agency that handles the planes. As secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation, Blankenhorn flew or was scheduled to fly on the shuttle 17 times between January and April, according to the data provided by IDOT.

Without the service, he'll have to either drive, take Amtrak or fly commercially, all of which will take more time out of his workday than flying.

But, IDOT says Rauner's action won't have any effect.

"This decision will have no impact whatsoever on the secretary's ability to do his job," IDOT spokesman Brian Williamsen said in an email Wednesday.

Another frequent flier is Rauner's hand-picked comptroller, Republican Leslie Munger, who flew or was scheduled to fly on the shuttle seven times between January and April.

Munger spokesman Rich Carter said she will now commute by car.

"Comptroller Munger wholeheartedly supports the decision given the General Assembly's inability to deliver a balanced budget. Debt from years of unbalanced budgets is crowding out funding for critical services, and Comptroller Munger believes we must re-examine every state expenditure," Carter said.

Democratic State Treasurer Mike Frerichs rode the shuttle three times in the first four months of the year. His chief of staff, Jay Rowell, flew or was scheduled to fly 10 times, records show.

"The treasurer supports ways to reduce state spending and make government more efficient and accountable," Frerichs spokeswoman Paris Ervin said. "Our staff also uses efficient modes of travel such as Amtrak and driving to events, meetings and legislative hearings."

House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, the two Chicago Democrats Rauner is blaming for forcing him to ground the planes, also use the service to get to the capital city during the spring legislative session.

Records show Madigan was on the plane or scheduled to fly 12 times, while Cullerton's name appears nine times.

The records show few Republican lawmakers used the plane in the first four months of 2015. House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, was on the plane or scheduled to fly eight times.

Rank-and-file Democrats, however, are a common sight on the plane, records show.

State Sens. Jacqui Collins and Tony Munoz of Chicago each flew or were scheduled to fly more than a dozen times. State Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Chicago, was on the passenger manifest 11 times.

Follow Kurt Erickson on Twitter: @Illinois_Stage

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