Why U.P. legislators should be able to hitch rides on existing state flights
House Bill 5301 is a bipartisan proposal allowing legislators serving in the Upper Peninsula a more effective way to serve residents while also saving taxpayer money.
The plan allows state legislators to fly on state-owned aircraft in certain instances. On occasion, state agencies schedule flights on state-owned aircraft for official business in the Upper Peninsula. On these trips, there are often empty seats. The bill would allow legislators to use those empty seats. This is practical, sensible and will likely save the state money.
The state constitution and state laws set legislative compensation including for traveling to and from Lansing. The four current legislators from the U.P. each travel more than 400 miles, one way, every week. This is more than double the distance for any other state legislator. This costs the taxpayers of Michigan around $60,000 per year in reimbursements.
Perhaps more consequentially, the time on the road significantly disadvantages both the legislators and the citizens of the U.P. they represent in Lansing. Time behind the windshield in good weather is about 15 hours per week for the members that travel 400 miles and about 20 hours for those living in the Keweenaw. In the winter, these travel times can substantially increase and include all-night drives or stays in motels along the way that are not compensated by the state. All four need to leave the U.P. on Mondays rather than Tuesday mornings as their downstate counterparts do, which causes them to miss important local meetings and events. They are frequently unable to attend Friday events in the district for the same reasons.
Meanwhile, all the downstate legislators can – and do – go home each day or almost every day to serve their districts. While flying would not completely equalize the service and availability, it would significantly increase the time available both in the district and in Lansing by changing those long windshield hours and an extra night in Lansing to productive hours in the district or at the capitol.
This proposal would not see an airplane drop U.P. legislators off at their front doors after a luxury flight. The state planes are older, have no service aboard and less legroom than any car or sport utility vehicle. Legislators would drive to one of the central airports in the U.P., which still may be 100 miles or more away from their home, but could often be coordinated with other in-district stops to and from the airport.
No one should fear this option being used to excess or for personal gain. The approval of the Senate leader or House Speaker would be necessary to access these flights and districts must be entirely in the U.P. for a legislator to seek approval. Hopefully, a time in the future will come that a commercial flight will be an option for all U.P. citizens. Until then, maximizing the Upper Peninsula’s impact in Lansing and the legislators’ in-district service will both be significantly improved by passing HB 5301.