Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Nebraska: New state plane? Plans for one up in the air

LINCOLN, Neb. — Whether to buy a new state plane, which sparked a hot debate between the governor and state lawmakers last session, appears to be a political hot potato heading into the 2014 session.

A consultant hired by the Nebraska Legislature has concluded that the state needs to buy a turboprop plane capable of traversing the state, and that it makes the most financial sense to purchase a new one.

But it's up in the air if the governor or anyone in the Legislature will take the next step and ask for the $3.3 million or more to buy one when the session begins in January.

A trio of state lawmakers involved in the issue said they don't plan to make a budget request for a plane and said the issue is back in the hands of Gov. Dave Heineman, who had sought to buy a $2.1 million plane from the University of Nebraska Foundation.

"Right now, this is not a priority this upcoming session, unless it's a priority for the governor," said State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, who heads the Appropriations Commit-tee, which crafts state budgets.

But a Heineman administration official said he figured senators had taken over the issue and would pursue a new plane, based on the study's recommendations, after the Legislature rejected the governor's idea and commissioned its own study.

"It's hard to interpret it any other way," said Gerry Oligmueller, who heads the governor's budget office.

It's unclear if the state plane issue will take off in the 2014 session, or be grounded for another year.

Purchases, and disposal, of state airplanes have generated controversy in other states.

When Sarah Palin was governor of Alaska, her sale of the governor's jet in 2007 was seen as a symbol of reducing government waste.

Years before that, in the 1990s, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad sold the state's three planes in a budget-cutting move, and began driving more and chartering planes when necessary.

State planes also have made headlines when they crashed or didn't work. Two governors have died in accidents involving state planes, and planes carrying Nebraska governors have slid off runways and struck geese in the past two decades.

In a bid to improve safety and to assist in getting around a big state, Heineman proposed buying a 12-year-old turboprop plane owned by the NU Foundation. The governor had been using the plane for several years, but it would have been the first purchase of a state plane in 31 years.

The Appropriations Committee first rejected and then recommended purchase of the foundation's plane.

But the idea hit turbulence when it was debated by the full Legislature. Some senators, led by Omaha Sen. Bob Krist, a longtime military and private pilot, and Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas, questioned whether the asking price for the plane was too high and why the state wasn't considering buying new.

In the end, lawmakers opted to postpone the plane purchase and conduct a study by an expert in the business.

That $4,800 study by aviation consultants Conklin & de Decker was completed in September. It concluded that the Beechcraft King Air B200 offered by the NU Foundation for $2.1 million was overpriced by about $170,000 and that buying a new aircraft would make the most financial sense in the long term.

The analysis recommended buying a slightly smaller but more expensive five-passenger turboprop plane, a Beechcraft King Air C90GTx, at an estimated cost of $3.3 million to $3.7 million, to take advantage of a new-plane warranty and better long-term reliability.

An additional study, to determine how to charge for use of the plane and who should use it, is expected to be completed in the next couple of weeks.

"We've done the homework," Krist said. "The way the process should work at this point, if (the governor) should want a new airplane, he should request it."

Dubas, who is chairwoman of the Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, had proposed this spring buying a plane if the Legislature's study recommended it. But it was determined that lawmakers could not appropriate money on a contingency basis.

Last week, the senator said she doesn't plan to introduce a bill on her own to buy a plane. That's now the governor's call, she said.

"We've got some pretty big issues on our plate this session, and where does a plane fall?" Dubas said. "Probably on the periphery."

Currently, the governor is flying around the state in a seven-passenger, 1982 Piper Cheyenne, which Heineman had proposed selling.

Whether the governor will request money for a new plane is unclear. His spokeswoman, Jen Rae Wang, said she had nothing to add beyond the comments from the head of the governor's budget office.

Krist said he would be willing to introduce a bill if the governor asked him.

Omaha Sen. John Nelson, who supported the plane purchase this spring, said he was still disappointed that lawmakers didn't buy the NU Foundation plane, which was sold to a private buyer in late September. A foundation spokeswoman declined to reveal the purchase price.

The senator said he still thinks the state needs a plane but that he, too, probably has bigger priorities in 2014, his last year in office.

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