The Nebraska Legislature’s 2014 session isn’t yet off the ground, but there’s already a controversy stirring up crosswinds.
Nebraska is a big state, and for years now state leaders have used a state airplane to get out of the Capitol to meet with its far-flung citizens.
Flying rather than driving to distant destinations reduces hours of unproductive windshield time for top officials and, in times of emergency, provides faster travel for those who need to be on the scene in a hurry.
Both Gov. Dave Heineman and state senators pretty much agreed about that last year.
What they didn’t agree on was whether to buy a 12-year-old plane from the University of Nebraska Foundation or to purchase a somewhat more expensive new one that would last longer.
In looking at the situation, lawmakers asked a sensible question: Which route is more cost-effective — new or used? They hired an outside expert, who recommended new. The expert said a five- to seven-seat plane, purchased new at a price of about $3.3 million to $3.7 million, would be cost- effective to maintain for about 20 to 25 years.
It is disappointing that the governor and members of the Legislature appear to be arguing now over who should bite the politically unpopular bullet of requesting the purchase.
Heineman thought enough of the idea last year to add $2.2 million to his budget request for the used airplane. The Legislature thought enough of the idea to seek professional advice on the best course. But while decision-makers in Lincoln dawdle, the governor and other state officials are flying in a more than three-decade-old, seven-passenger aircraft that is costly to maintain. Safety has become a concern.
While a state plane may sound lavish for a generally frugal government, if the governor and lawmakers believe it is needed, they should make their case to taxpayers.
It might be a tough sell. But in the past, a state airplane has served some sound purposes, enabling the governor and agency officials to meet statewide schedules with long distances between stops. The plane has been used by state health and emergency management officials who respond to crises like the wildfires that struck north-central Nebraska. State employees use state aircraft when commercial flights aren’t a viable option.
Lawmakers also could press for more detailed answers to their previous questions about whether it might be more cost-effective to reach a charter arrangement with a private company. The public should know plainly that purchasing is the right path.
But squabbling over who should have to make this year’s budget request seems silly.
If all agree that the state has a genuine need for a plane — and that buying one is cheaper than chartering — then put the question before the taxpayers’ representatives and take a vote.
It shouldn’t matter whether the request comes from the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee or a term-limited chief executive looking out for his successors.