By Richard A. Lee
ChrisChristie was a little late in coming to the table, but this week he joined theranks of Jim McGreevey, Christie Whitman and other New Jersey governors whoseuse of state helicopters have generated controversy. In just a few days, thecircumstances surrounding the current controversy have become topics for stateand national news stories and fodder for the Governor's political opponents.
Ashas been reported in multiple news outlets, Governor Christie used a statehelicopter to travel to his son's high school baseball game in Montvale. Thetrip touched off controversy for several reasons. It was an expensive way totravel -- at taxpayer expense -- to a non-governmental event, especially for aGovernor who has been vocal about the need for New Jersey to control spending.In addition, the primary functions of the state's helicopter fleet are homelandsecurity and emergency medical transportation. A trip to a high school baseballgame fits into neither category.
Inthe span of a few days, we've had Democrats calling for hearings andinvestigations, the State Police defending the trip, and the Governor firstrefusing to reimburse the state, and then pulling an about-face and writing acheck to cover the costs of traveling to not one, but two of his son's baseballgames.
Althoughthe circumstances may differ from what occurred during previousadministrations, the result was the same. Once again, a New Jersey Governor’suse of a state helicopter has been the source of controversy. But it doesn’thave to be that way; we just have to take a different approach to the issue.Instead of holding hearings, reviewing flight logs, and demanding reimbursement, New Jersey might wantto consider providing its Governor with a state helicopter for his orher exclusive use (with clear provisions requiring that the state be reimbursedfor non-governmental travel).
Onthe surface, such a move runs counter to the current fiscal climate in whichspending cuts and smaller government are the mantra. But think of it this way: The price tag of the helicopter Christie used was $12.5million. It’s a big number that becomes smaller when you place it in thecontext of a $30 billion state budget. And we’re not going to be buying a newchopper every year. Granted, at about $2,500 an hour, the cost of flying byhelicopter could add up quickly, but it still would be a small portion of theoverall budget.
Froman efficiency standpoint, it makes sense too. As taxpayers, don’t we want toget our money’s worth out of our governors? Wouldn’t we rather have them get tomore places to do their job instead of spending time in a car?
Inaddition, giving governors their own helicopters would eliminate the inevitablecontroversies that occur when they use choppers that are responsible forhomeland security and emergency medical transports. Governors serve as the chiefexecutive of the state and have critical responsibilities and duties. Theyshouldn’t have to hitch rides to do their job.
New Jersey already provides our governorswith more power than their counterparts throughout the nation. Under terms ofthe state constitution, New Jersey governors have the power of line-item veto;they appoint judges and other state officials, and until recently the governorwas the only statewide elected office.
Theworld was much different when the current state constitution was drafted in1947, giving New Jersey governors the broadpowers at their discretion today. The idea of providing governors with a statehelicopter would have been far-fetched at that time. But it’s a different eratoday, and perhaps now is the time to give the idea serious consideration.
Richard A. Lee isCommunications Director of the HallInstitute. A former State House reporter and Deputy CommunicationsDirector for the Governor, he also teaches courses in media, politics andgovernment at Rutgers University, where he is completing work on a Ph.D. inmedia studies. Read more of Rich’s columns at richleeonline and follow himon Twitter.