Editorial: Answers needed from Nixon regarding new plane

Gov. Jay Nixon gave a great State of the State address last night to the state legislatures. He spoke with passion and clarity, highlighting the struggles and triumphs of ordinary Missourians. He outlined his plan for a confident way forward — one that will require the cooperation of the statehouse.

But the speech gave no hint that he is currently facing heat from the same legislature regarding the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s $5.6 million purchase of an aircraft for Nixon’s use.

The plane, a Beechcraft King Air 250, is the second Highway Patrol airplane. The first was used for both patrol operations and for transporting Nixon and other public officials around the state. According to state Sen. Ryan Silvey (R-District 17), Nixon used the plane so frequently that the patrol purchased this second plane for his operations and will keep the first plane for theirs. Many state legislators have spoken up in anger, saying they were not informed of the patrol’s plan and that Nixon does not need his own aircraft.

Despite his self-styling as a budget hawk, Nixon seems to have a tough time containing his personal use of state funds. His department took criticism for excessive spending during his first term, including $550,000 spent on trips in the highway patrol plane between 2009 and 2011. The state legislature then restricted his ability to charge the state for his travel expenses. It seems a natural and assured move for the recently re-elected Nixon and his highway patrol to consult with, or at least notify, state legislators and the public before purchasing a second airplane.

But neither Nixon nor the Highway Patrol did so. While the money for the plane was taken from a designated Highway Patrol fund for automobiles and aircraft, two state senators told the Maneater that money from the fund could have been transferred to help pay state troopers, closing the pay gap that exists in the force, or it could have been used to improve Missouri’s dismal infrastructure. Fortunately with his luxurious new aircraft, Gov. Nixon will not have to use our state’s crumbling highways.

Where the situation gets troubling for us is how state legislators and the public were left in the dark on this $5.6 million aircraft purchase (not counting the fuel, staffing and other miscellaneous operating costs). What was the rationale for this? Was it done out of fear that if the statehouse and the citizenry were made aware of it, they would not allow it to go through — that the reasons for requiring a second private airplane would not be strong enough to convince the taxpayers footing the bill? If there were a demonstrated need, we’re sure the state legislature would have been happy to consider it. Nixon and the Highway Patrol’s failure to inform others of their plan seems to indicate that they didn’t feel comfortable demonstrating any such need.

There is a time and a demand for the governor to have an aircraft available to him. Emergencies and natural disasters, such as the 2011 tragedy in Joplin, often require it. But those are (hopefully) rare. There is no such necessity for political events, such as Nixon’s recent appearance at a Washington bash hosted by Vice President Joe Biden. For times such as those, our governor can take commercial airlines along with the rest of us. Or, keeping his recent education cuts in mind, Nixon could take the Megabus used by students between mid-Missouri and major cities. Maybe on the way there, he could talk to his fellow passengers — they might teach him a thing or two about fiscal responsibility.

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