SPRINGFIELD - As Illinois inches toward a budgetary crisis, taxpayers this month have been spending almost $6,000 a day, several days a week, to fly Gov. Rod Blagojevich from his Chicago home to his Springfield office and back, records show.
The total bill in the past month may be as high as $75,000, the records indicate.
The travel has not helped end political gridlock. Blagojevich and legislative leaders this month have been unable to agree on a budget plan in the face of a new July 1 fiscal year and a potential shutdown of state government.
"(Blagojevich's daily flights) are a total waste of taxpayers' money, especially when we have meetings like we just had," said state Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, R-Greenville, as he emerged Wednesday from closed-door budget talks with Blagojevich and others.
Watson is among critics pushing for a legal ban on more than one state-funded trip to Springfield per week for the governor.
Blagojevich, a Chicago Democrat long known for his aversion to the state's capital, has been in Springfield more than usual this month. He and lawmakers failed to agree on a new state budget by the Legislature's scheduled May 31 summer adjournment date.
Lawmakers in both parties have blamed Blagojevich for the impasse, saying he refuses to back off from an unrealistically expensive policy initiative. Blagojevich's staff has slammed lawmakers for working three days a week or less.
"Everyone in America works five days a week and is expected to put in full-time work in order to complete their jobs," Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff told reporters June 4, as the overtime budget negotiations got under way.
But state transportation records examined by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch show Blagojevich spent just three days in Springfield that week - flying in from Chicago around noon each day, remaining in town for as little as three hours, then flying home.
While the administration has generally been tight-lipped about Blagojevich's travel schedule, he appears to have followed a similar routine since then.
According to state transportation and auditor officials, those round trips cost taxpayers between $5,729 and $5,925 each, depending on which Chicago airport Blagojevich uses. A round-trip ticket can be bought on a commercial flight, on short notice, for between $500 and $700, according to a quick Internet search Wednesday.
In addition to providing Blagojevich with use of a plane, the taxpayers maintain an Executive Mansion in Springfield. But the governor has long eschewed the mansion even for one-night stays, preferring to shuttle back home.
According to a report earlier this year by the Illinois auditor general's office, the cost of flying Blagojevich on one of the state planes - accounting for fuel, staff and other expenses - is $9.81 a mile.
A one-way trip between Springfield and Chicago's O'Hare Airport is 151 nautical miles, according to a spokesman with the Illinois Department of Transportation. Blagojevich also sometimes flies from Chicago's Midway Airport, 146 nautical miles from the capital.
That mileage is quadrupled for each round trip Blagojevich makes, because the planes are based in Springfield. They fly from Springfield to Chicago to pick him up, then return to Springfield after dropping him off.
Records obtained by the Post-Dispatch through a Freedom of Information Act request covered only air travel from early March to June 7. Exact mileage during that time is difficult to calculate, because there were other flights to different cities. But Blagojevich's travel schedule since May 22 has been exclusively between Chicago and Springfield, as the legislative adjournment deadline approached and then passed.
The records show that between May 22 and June 7 Blagojevich made nine round-trip flights between Springfield and Chicago. That's a total cost of more than $51,000, as calculated by the auditor general's formula. That's in addition to at least four additional days Blagojevich has appeared in Springfield after June 7, which potentially adds more than $23,000 to that bill.
Blagojevich's office responded to requests for comment with a written statement pointing out "the governor's responsibilities extend beyond the state Capitol, but he's still been in Springfield repeatedly during this overtime period … in order to finish the work of the people and avoid a government shutdown."