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Lawmakers debate whether to buy new Nebraska plane

February 26, 2014 Updated: February 26, 2014 at 5:32 pm

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Lawmakers on Wednesday debated whether Nebraska should buy, lease or charter a new plane to ferry the governor and others around while on state business.

The proposal would allow the state to acquire a plane to replace its 1982 Piper Cheyenne aircraft. Gov. Dave Heineman and other state officials have used the plane since losing access to a newer aircraft last year.

Lawmakers rejected the governor's budget request last year to spend $2.5 million for a 2001 Beechcraft King Air, saying they hadn't yet studied the alternatives. State officials had leased the plane from the University of Nebraska Foundation, which sold it to a private buyer in September for $1.9 million. Heineman has said the state needs a plane so he and other officials can travel to western Nebraska quickly and safely to meet with residents.

The question of whether to buy, lease or charter "is what this debate needs to be about," said Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, the bill's sponsor. "Whether we need air travel and air support, I think, is a foregone conclusion."

Krist, a pilot and Air Force veteran, said the state should buy new because the other options could cost more over the long-term. A new plane would have better safety features, he said, and would retain more of its value after its recommended 20-year lifespan has expired.

Krist said chartering a plane could create logistical problems, because aircraft aren't always available when needed. Chartering and leasing would also rely on a private company's pilots, he said. The Department of Aeronautics already has two regular pilots in addition to director Ronnie Mitchell, a pilot who sometimes fills in.

A legislative consultant has recommended buying a new King Air C90GTx, a twin-engine turboprop that can carry five passengers and two pilots. It would cost as much as $3.8 million, though money from other aircraft sales would likely reduce that cost.

Sen. Ernie Chambers, of Omaha, said he hasn't made up his mind about how the state should acquire the plane, or if one was even necessary for state officials.

"Let them get out on the road and drive, and see what the ordinary citizen encounters," Chambers said.

Sen. John Harms, of Scottsbluff, said the plane was critical in a state as geographically large as Nebraska. Driving from Scottsbluff to Lincoln is a six-hour, one-way drive, not counting the hour lost when changing time zones.

Harms said he has flown in some of the state planes before, including one with tiles falling from the ceiling.

"We have to make sure we spend the money to make sure our people our safe," he said.

Lawmakers agreed to add an amendment by Sen. Jeremy Nordquist that would restrict the plane's use to state business. The Department of Aeronautics would also have to report all of the agencies that use the plane, the names of each passenger, the purpose of each trip, and each place where it lands.

Nordquist said he preferred a flat amount of money approved by the Legislature that would let governors charter an airplane when needed. He said the revision was intended to prevent governors from making stops for political appearances while traveling on state business.

"I think the taxpayers will approve of this language," Nordquist said.


The bill is LB1016

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