Officials of a state that spans more than 77,000 square miles have two choices for staying connected with citizens from border to border:
One is to limit destinations to a reasonable driving distance from the State Capitol and allow geography to dictate interaction between citizens and those running their government. The other is to travel by airplane when necessary and treat the state as one connected community.
For Nebraska officials, the driving option sounds great during tight economic times, especially when some three-fourths of the state’s population lives within a reasonable drive from Lincoln. And most state officials do drive most of the time.
But Nebraska doesn’t end at Kearney.
Quite the contrary, considering the state’s governors from McCook, the proud independence of the Panhandle, the recreational jewels near Chadron and Valentine, the industry in South Sioux City and the business of North Platte, to name a few.
Most commercial air service, even the federally subsidized kind, won’t get you from Lincoln to North Platte much quicker than driving. And it’s a long drive, six hours each way, from Lincoln to Scottsbluff. So it is reasonable for the state government to own and use a plane. A big part of governing is being there.
It appears that a new state plane is needed, either now or soon. State aeronautics officials talk about the difficulty of finding repair parts for the state’s remaining plane, a 31-year-old, seven-passenger Piper Cheyenne. State officials, including Gov. Dave Heineman, deserve to travel the state safely and efficiently.
It also makes sense to explore the chance to purchase the airplane that state officials use most often, a 2001 Beechcraft Super King Air owned by the University of Nebraska Foundation, a plane the foundation plans to sell one way or another.
But despite the foundation’s June 30 deadline, the state should not rush to buy this particular plane, not until it can verify that taxpayers are getting the biggest bang for their buck. Some critics have called the price too steep for the age of the aircraft. That question should be explored independently.
If, as some state legislators suggest, spending $10,000 on an aircraft consultant could save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars, the idea deserves consideration. That study also should weigh whether the state would do better to figure out what type of plane best meets its needs and then put out a request for competitive bids.
Still, senators have to understand that the NU Foundation might not wait, that it might explore its options on the open market.
The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee was right to include the $2.2 million for the state plane in its budget so debate on the matter can continue. The issue needs resolving.
Too much of the discussion gets lost in the desire to score political points against an administration that often tells senators “no” on new spending.
In making this decision, lawmakers need to focus instead on finding the best way for officials to reach all parts of the state while also providing the best value for taxpayers.