LINCOLN — Gov. Dave Heineman blasted state lawmakers Friday for “playing politics” with his proposal to buy a new state plane.
The governor, in an interview, said he made the “tough decision” a year ago to recommend the purchase of a used plane, but the Legislature chose to “waste” money on a study. Now, he said, lawmakers are unwilling to take action to buy the plane recommended by that study.
“They're playing politics with the safety of Nebraskans who will be riding in state planes, and that's not appropriate,” Heineman said. “I'm waiting for them to act.”
State Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, a longtime professional and military pilot who was involved in the plane issue, said that as a pilot, he would never jeopardize safety. But he said that lawmakers did what taxpayers would demand, which was to professionally evaluate whether the used plane was a good buy or whether buying a new one made more sense.
Krist said the Legislature has done its oversight, and now it's up to the governor to decide whether to act on the study, which recommended a new airplane costing at least $3.3 million.
“We're ready to move. We're just waiting for him to say he's willing to move forward,” the senator said. “I have already said I would carry the bill for him.”
The issue of buying a state plane has taken more dips and dives than a carnival ride over the past year and could come up again when the Legislature begins its 60-day session on Wednesday. The issue pits public safety against political perks, and what is the best, and most economical, way to reach constituents across a big state.
Last January the governor proposed that the state purchase a 13-year-old turboprop plane from the University of Nebraska Foundation for $2.1 million. The state had been leasing the Beechcraft King Air B200 for several years.
It would have been the state's first purchase of a plane in 31 years.
The Legislature's Appropriations Committee first rejected, then recommended the idea. But the full Legislature opted instead for a study, because of concerns raised by Krist and others that the state was paying too much for the used plane.
This past fall a study conducted by an aviation firm concluded that the foundation's plane was overpriced by about $200,000 and that it made the most financial sense to buy new. It recommended a five-passenger turboprop plane, a Beechcraft King Air C90GTx, that would cost between $3.3 million and $3.7 million. A new plane would come with a warranty and be more reliable, according to the study, which was not to cost more than $4,800.
The foundation's plane has since been sold. The governor now uses a 32-year-old plane, a Piper Cheyenne, that he had proposed selling because of its age and difficulty in finding parts.
The plane has become a proverbial political hot potato.
Heineman said the Legislature did its study but is unwilling to make the “tough decision” to move forward and purchase the plane recommended by it.
“So the Legislature's mode of operation is to study and make no decision?” Heineman asked.
Krist said the Legislature's goal was to determine the best expenditure for millions of dollars of state funds. The Appropriations Committee, he said, recommended the governor conduct a plane study, but he “thumbed his nose” at the idea.
The senator said the Legislature was “forced” to do a study.
Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, chairman of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, said the study's goal was to determine whether the foundation plane was a good buy. It concluded that it was overpriced. “It was a good decision to strip that out of the budget,” Mello said.
Krist said the Legislature has done its job and appears willing to spend the money — if the governor requests it.
Heineman singled out Krist and Mello for criticism.
“This is no different than when you go and buy a car ... do you want a good used car or a new one?” Heineman said. “This is not a tough decision: A or B.”