State Plane At Center Of Political Battle

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Until recently, most Vermonters probably weren’t aware that the state had its own plane.

But news that Gov. Peter Shumlin used the single-engine Cessna in the run-up to last year’s election has lent the aircraft some celebrity.

On Sept. 27, Shumlin hopped aboard the state-owned plane to make a late-evening flight from Lyndonville to Middlebury. It was one of his five flights aboard the 1962 Cessna last year, but it’s proving to be the most controversial.

That’s because Shumlin was en route to Middlebury State Airport so he could catch a car ride to a campaign fundraiser at a private home in Lincoln. When the Burlington weekly Seven Days broke news of the trip last weekend, administration officials asked the campaign to reimburse taxpayers for the flight.

Officials at the Agency of Transportation valued the Lyndonville-to-Middlebury leg at $65.80. Deputy Chief of Staff Susan Allen said Tuesday the administration requested reimbursement "to err on the side of caution."

"The question was raised and we could argue about it," Allen said Tuesday. "But we’re not going to argue about it."

Jack Lindley, chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, issued a statement Tuesday accusing the Democratic governor of using state property for his own political benefit. He said it’s troubling that the state sought reimbursement only after the facts were made public.

"Vermonters need to be concerned when they see the governor begin to use his office to access state resources and use them for his personal benefit," Lindley added in a phone interview. "It’s a scary mentality to see taking hold."

Lindley said the amount the campaign was asked to reimburse the state is too small.

"I can’t imagine that that covers the gas, let alone the time of the staff, the maintenance on the aircraft, things like that," Lindley said.

Shumlin had flown from Berlin to Newport to Lyndonville on official business that day to oversee a series of economic developments, according to records first obtained by Seven Days.

Allen said the trip to Middlebury was only a small diversion. She said the governor had to be dropped off somewhere after completing his official duties and he simply asked to be flown to Middlebury instead of Berlin.

All five of the governor’s trips aboard the plane came during a nine-week period before the election. Allen said that’s because he didn’t find out it existed until August, at which point he decided to use it to solve some dilemmas posed by his busy schedule.

The Shumlin administration in its budget proposal last month asked lawmakers to replace the three-seat Cessna with a five-seat, $1.5 million Beechcraft Baron. Transportation officials said the Cessna had serious maintenance issues that would cost more to fix than the plane was worth.

But lawmakers criticized the proposal, saying the state could ill afford a top-shelf plane as it was pondering an increase in gas taxes to cover a $36 million shortfall in the transportation budget. Lindley on Tuesday said revelations of Shumlin’s use of the plane last year raise questions about why his administration is seeking a new one now.

"It seems pretty obvious to me that he wants something with a wider range, something that can fly to Washington, D.C., or wherever else he wants to go to expand his political fortunes," Lindley said. "I guess he wants the taxpayers to pay for his political ambitions."

Allen said the request for the new plane came from transportation officials, not from Shumlin.

The Cessna has been grounded since shortly after the election last year because of maintenance issues, according to Allen. The administration, meanwhile, has backed off its proposal to buy a replacement.

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