LINCOLN — It's a tale of two states when it comes to the use of a state airplane by the governors of Iowa and Nebraska.
In Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad sold the state's three planes and laid off the pilots in the 1990s as a way to cut the state budget.
Today, Branstad charters planes when he flies, and that's only happened four times in the past nine months.
“Ground transportation is just what we try to use,” said Tim Albrecht, Branstad's communications director.
Here in Nebraska, Gov. Dave Heineman is all in on the purchase of a $2.2 million airplane the state has leased for several years from the University of Nebraska Foundation.
The proposed purchase has generated controversy over whether the state is getting the best bang for its aeronautic buck in buying the 2001 plane, an eight-passenger, twin-engine Beechcraft Super King Air B200.
Some state senators say Nebraska ought to delay the purchase and spend $10,000 on a study by an aircraft consultant to determine whether the 12-year-old plane best fits the needs of the governor and the other state agencies that will use it.
“I want the governor to have a plane — he needs it. But why would we not consider buying new?” asked one advocate of a study, Omaha Sen. Bob Krist, who flies airplanes for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Other senators, though, said the deal being offered by the NU Foundation — though it may come at a slightly higher-than-average price for that make and model of plane — is too good to pass up. The state is familiar with the plane, and the deadline for taking the deal is June 30.
Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff said the governor needs a good aircraft to easily reach western Nebraska communities like his own, which is about a 6½-hour drive from the State Capitol in Lincoln.
“We're so separated from the rest of the state,” Harms said. “It's good to have that connection.”
The purchase of the state plane may face a bumpy ride during debate next week over the state budget, even though the plane purchase represents only a tiny fraction of the $3.9 billion a year in proposed spending.
State-owned planes frequently grab headlines, both as a symbol of budget excess or frugality, or when there's a tragic accident.
At least two governors have died in crashes involving state planes: Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan in 2000 and South Dakota Gov. George Mickelson in 1993.
And Nebraska governors have had some close calls. In 1996, a state plane carrying then-Gov. Ben Nelson and five others slid off the rain-slickened runway at the Millard Airport. In 2000, a state plane carrying then-Gov. Mike Johanns and three others struck a goose while landing in Des Moines. No one was injured in either incident.
In recent years, other governors have made political hay by getting rid of state aircraft.
The sale of a state “luxury” jet by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin helped propel her onto the GOP ticket as the running mate of U.S. Sen. John McCain in 2008.
The sales of airplanes by governors in Kentucky and Florida recently were hailed as fiscal austerity measures by leaders in those states.
But in Nebraska, Heineman has portrayed the purchase as a necessary cost of being governor in a vast state that inspired the joke: “Nebraska is an Indian word for 'long way across.'”
Indeed, the drive to Chadron, in Nebraska's northwest corner, can take 7½ hours, and it takes another hour's drive west to reach Harrison, the last community before hitting the Wyoming border.
Heineman has said the King Air, by contrast, can reach most Nebraska communities within an hour.
“A state plane is important so that every citizen has access to their state officials,” said Jen Rae Hein, the governor's spokeswoman.
In Iowa, the longest drive from the State Capitol is perhaps five hours, according to Albrecht, the governor's spokesman.
He said Branstad tries to bundle stops together to keep road time to a minimum, and will use free plane rides to some events.
In Nebraska, the plane proposal had a rough take-off, failing to initially advance from the Legislature's budget-crafting Appropriations Committee. Last week, though, the committee did an about-face, advancing the purchase on a 5-3 vote. It would be the first purchase of a plane by the state in 31 years.
O'Neill Sen. Tyson Larson said he was able to vote yes on the purchase after the source of the funds was changed from the general fund to the state's cash reserve. That way, he said, the purchase will not harm other budget priorities.
But other committee members remain opposed.
“It was kind of a rushed deal,” said Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, chairman of the committee, of the August 2012 lease-purchase contract signed by the state and the foundation for the $2.2 million purchase.
An airplane broker, Steve Rich of Bell Aviation in Grand Junction, Colo., said the sales price was a tad high, though he said it makes more sense for the state to buy used instead of new. The average retail price of a 2001 King Air is about $2 million, Rich said.
Dorothy Endacott of the NU Foundation said the purchase price was based on an independent appraisal of the aircraft, which she said was probably more accurate than an average retail price because it evaluated the specific plane.
She said state pilots are acquainted with the plane because they've been flying it since it was purchased new by the foundation. If the state does not buy the plane, the foundation intends to sell it on the open market.
The state estimates that the plane will last another 20 years, but Krist and others said an expensive engine overhaul is due in a couple of years, raising the question of whether buying new would be better.
Another member of the committee, Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, said more study is needed to determine if other planes might be better bargains, or if chartering planes, as is done in Iowa, is more cost-efficient.
In testimony to the committee, Ronnie Mitchell, head of the State Aeronautics Department, said buying the King Air and selling another state plane, a seven-passenger, 31-year-old Piper Cheyenne IIXL, is the best solution for the state.
Chartering a plane to Scottsbluff, Mitchell told the committee, would cost $6,025, compared with the $4,204 cost of using a state-owned King Air. A new King Air would cost between $3.6 million and $5.5 million, he said.
The foundation was the primary user of the King Air during the 2011-12 fiscal year, flying 14,035 miles, or roughly 41 percent of the 33,972 miles logged by the plane.
The Governor's Office flew 11,905 miles during that period, or 35 percent of the time. Other users included the University of Nebraska and its campuses (15 percent of the use) and the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (6 percent).
The foundation would no longer use the King Air if it sold the aircraft. However, it's anticipated that once the Cheyenne is sold, state agencies now using that plane would use the larger King Air.
The Cheyenne was flown 12,112 miles in the last fiscal year, but state officials say it's hard to find replacement parts for the aging plane.
Using mileage charges provided by the state, Nebraska's governor spent $68,138 on state planes in the 2011-12 fiscal year. That compares with $4,500 spent by Iowa's governor to charter planes during the past nine months.
Nordquist was among the members of the Appropriations Committee who expressed frustration that they had asked for more details from the Governor's Office about the plane purchase but didn't get them.
“There was just no true cost-benefit analysis done,” the senator said.
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