WICHITA, Kan. — Kansas budget woes haven’t touched the state’s executive aircraft, which is getting a new paint job, a spruced up interior and upgraded avionics this year.
Along with regular operating costs, the improvements will cost taxpayers nearly $900,000, according to interviews and other documents obtained through an open records request by The Associated Press.
Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley called the spending “highly ironic” at a time when funding for highway projects has been slashed. Gov. Sam Brownback and his allies have taken billions of dollars from the transportation department’s highway fund over the years to balance the state budget. Hensley said the expenditures for the state’s plane went unnoticed during lawmakers’ discussions on the $15.7 billion budget for the 2017 fiscal year, which began July 1.
“It is not a huge sum of money obviously compared to the budget as a whole, but it is symbolic of, you know, our misguided priorities in terms of where money should be spent,” Hensley said.
Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley defended the added expenditures, noting the plane’s age. She also said the plane was being used according to state law.
“The state plane is used by Kansas universities, a number of independently elected officials and state agencies to conduct official business of the State of Kansas,” she said.
Newly released Kansas Highway Patrol records show the operating budget for the state’s Raytheon King Air 350 for fiscal year 2016 is $267,325, not including wages for the pilots. The amount is unchanged in the 2017 budget.
This year’s expenditures also include an additional $69,249 for painting, $157,744 to refurbish the interior, and $397,825 to upgrade the plane’s aviation electronics systems, said Lt. Adam Winters, spokesman for KHP. Total cost of the project is $624,818.
The nine-passenger plane has the original paint, interior and avionics it had when it was purchased new in 2001, and the aging plane is now showing wear, Winters said. Painting is needed to control corrosion, as well as for its aesthetic appeal and general maintenance, he said. The complete avionics upgrade would also replace equipment with the latest technology that pilots rely on for every flight.
“It is definitely safety,” he said.
Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since the Republican-dominated Legislature slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging in an effort to stimulate the economy.
Bob Totten, executive vice president of the Kansas Contractor’s Association, downplayed any “quibbling” over the expenditures for the plane given that more than $2 billion has been diverted from the highway projects since the state’s transportation program started in 2010.
“And realistically your state officials do need to get around the state,” Totten said.