State auditors are questioning why the state still has a $1 million agency that does little more than schedule charter flights for top officials.
Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration said the Georgia Aviation Authority has saved the state money and helped bring down plane usage by state officials. Lawmakers say it has become little more than a travel agency and that the state should do away with it.
“It’s an experiment we tried and it failed and now we need to walk away,” said Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, who served as the House budget chairman when the authority was created.
Lawmakers have been cutting state spending since the start of Great Recession. But eliminating a newly created state agency — a possibility auditors raise — is fairly rare. And it would likely go against the wishes of the governor, who heads the authority’s board.
Some legislators, however, were never fully sold on the authority, and the new state audit gives them fodder to back up their arguments.
Gov. Sonny Perdue pushed legislation to create the authority in 2009 to both manage the state’s fleet of aircraft and act as a travel agent of sorts for state departments. Agencies would call the authority to plan air travel, and the authority would bill agencies for the flights. Before that, a decentralized fleet was run by several agencies.
Some state agencies lobbied to get their aircraft back after Perdue left office, arguing that, for instance, in the case of an emergency, they didn’t have time to contact the authority and set up a flight.
“Those guys in public safety don’t need to be waiting in line and take a ticket like they’re at a department store,” said House Public Safety Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell.
The authority was supposed to buy and sell, operate, maintain and house state aircraft. But it no longer operates or maintains any aircraft. Those that weren’t sold off were transferred back to the agencies that managed them before the authority was created.
Instead, auditors said, the authority — with two staffers — is now only responsible for managing a contract with a charter company and scheduling flights for agencies, like the governor’s office or the Department of Economic Development. The audit found that almost none of the 155 charter flights taken by state officials were billed back to the agencies that took them last year. The Department of Economic Development flew the most hours last year, followed by the Georgia Ports Authority and the governor’s office.
Georgia constitutional officers, top lawmakers and other high-ranking state officials are allowed to make flights at state expense for official business only.
Bart Gobeil, the state’s chief operating officer, said centralizing flights for some agencies has saved money by making state officials more careful about using government aircraft, something that auditors found as well. Before there was a central location for information and to book flights, there was less oversight.
Some agencies, for instance, have been criticized in the past for using state planes to ferry board members to Atlanta for meetings.
“Now they realize they have to be a little more judicious about using the service,” he said. “The (authority) board has better control over the cost.”
He said of the authority, “I wouldn’t call it just a travel agency. It’s more of a coordinating organization. We’re keeping an eye on potential abuses that might have taken place in the past.”
The audit said the average cost of the charter flights is $1,740 per hour. Auditors recommend the authority bill all state agencies for flights, something they said wasn’t done last year. “Requiring agencies to pay the actual flight cost may further reduce the use of charter services, discourage unnecessary use of the services and improve transparency,” the audit said.
It also said the General Assembly should re-evaluate the authority in general. Gobeil said the governor’s office isn’t planning any changes in the upcoming legislative session but will continue evaluating the authority.
Legislators like Harbin said there is simply no need for an extra layer of bureaucracy just to schedule flights for top state officials. Agencies can schedule their own flights, he said, and be held accountable for what they spend.
“The people of Georgia would applaud us not only for cutting costs, but for eliminating agencies,” he said. “We don’t need it.”