By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN — Several questions arise from the debate over whether Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman should spend $2.5 million in taxpayer money to buy an airplane from a group that raises money for the state university system.
Among them: The University of Nebraska Foundation owns a plane?
The foundation – a nonprofit that raises money for the University of Nebraska – bought the 11-seat Beechcraft Super King Air B200 in 2001, according to Robb Crouch, director of public relations for the foundation. He said the plane was used to fly to locations to meet donors.
In June, the foundation board of directors voted to sell it — one month after the Associated Press reported the foundation had spent more than $80,000 in 2011 using its private plane rather than fly commercial. The governor’s office spent $55,000 that same year, according to the AP.
“While the plane provided occasional advantages to the foundation in helping us meet face-to-face with donors, we reviewed our use of it and decided selling the plane would not have a significant impact on our fundraising efforts,” Crouch said via email. “If the state had not expressed interested in buying it, we would have placed it on the market to sell.”
The Nebraska Department of Aeronautics entered a lease-purchase agreement with the foundation with an option to buy the plane before the lease expires June 30. Under the agreement, the foundation does not have access to the plane, and it would not after the sale, Crouch said. Foundation employees are now flying commercial.
Jack Gould, spokesman for Common Cause Nebraska, said the plane is a luxury the state doesn’t need.
“In light of all the cuts the governor is recommending it seems like a luxury we just don’t need,” he said. “I don’t think an airplane is going to do much to improve child care, health care, or public schools. I don’t think it will be long before the foundation buys a new plane for the university and then the governor can once again share.”
The plane is one in a fleet of three operated by the Nebraska Department of Aeronautics and is used to fly the governor and other state officials around Nebraska. If the Legislature agrees to buy the turboprop, the state would sell a 1982 Piper Cheyenne airplane.
Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist has been critical of the govenor’s decision to include the $2.5 million plane purchase in his budget proposal, saying it’s not a priority compared to other needs. The governor – whose term ends in 2014 — has said it’s important for the governor and state officials to safely traverse the state. He said anyone in state government willing to pay the cost of using the plane could do so.