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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published January 10 2013

Aircraft pool contentious subject among state agencies

BISMARCK - State agencies do not want to give up their state-owned aircraft to the Department of Transportation, many legislators found out quickly Thursday.

The House Transportation Committee heard mostly opposition to HB1033, which would require most state agencies to put their aircrafts into a statewide central aircraft management system that would be overseen by the Department of Transportation. The bill was proposed by the Legislature’s interim Government Services Committee after a study of state-owned and state-leased aircraft, chaired by Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood.

“A lot of questions that came up to committee about efficiencies, age of airplanes, cost of maintenance,” Delzer told the House committee, “We thought we could do something better.” Most opposition to the bill Thursday was directed to the requirement that state agencies would have to transfer their title of ownership to the director of the DOT or a designee, who would head the management system.

Col. James Prochniak, Superintendent of the Highway Patrol, said the transfer of the highway patrols plane would violate agreements with the Department’s of Justice and Treasury, which require the planes to be used for law enforcement purposes only.

A sanction would be imposed if the Highway Patrol violated that agreement. The primary function of the plane, “is to provide initial, quick response to local public safety entities,” he said, but the Highway Patrol would not be able to if it had to go through the proposed system.

Prochniak said the Highway Patrol’s plane is specialized for search and rescue missions that it would be unfit for transporting passengers and worthless to the aircraft management system. The bill also would make the Game and Fish Department ineligible to receive future federal funds because their aircraft was purchased by hunting and fishing license revenues designated by federal regulations, according to Kim Molesworth, chief of administrative division for the Game and Fish Department.

“We would lose $20 million per biennium, that’s 37 percent of our total revenue,” she said. “We cannot afford to lose that.” Committee member, Rep. Curt Kreun, R-Grand Forks, said he doesn’t want the bill to interrupt the agencies funding, but questioned why they didn’t know about their title agreements when the interim committee proposed the idea.

He said the idea for the bill has been around for some time, and thinks it will take awhile to work through committee, but believes it to be “a good option if we can put enough planes together.” Gruchalla said the DOT already does a good job utilizing its aircraft, but this bill could help address some of the older planes in the fleet.

Larry Taborsky, director of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission, said insurance rates would increase if older planes are pooled with others because they are a large liability due to their use and difficulty to maintain. Safety is also a large concern, Taborsky said, as many agencies have pilots who are familiar with a particular plane and may not be as adept at flying aircraft selected out of a pool of planes.

“A pilot is trained specifically to an airplane,” Taborsky said. “We are comfortable in what we fly in, and can do it safely.” Committee member, Rep. Ed Gruchalla, D-Fargo, said last year’s study was initiated, in large part, because of the $2.3 million 1991 Beechcraft King Air B200 that North Dakota State University has leased since July 2007 for quarterly payments of $80,730.

“That seemed to be the impetus for the pool,” said Gruchalla, who represents NDSU constituents. “It goes back to (former NDSU President Joseph) Chapman and his private airplane.” The NDSU plane was exempt from the legislation since the interim committee was told it was for sale. It has since lost an offer and is still being leased.

The adjutant general’s office and entities under control of the State Board of Higher Education are also exempt from the legislation. The bill would require a $1.75 million startup appropriation and require agencies to pay user fees and operational costs to the DOT, which would be deposited into a new Central Aircraft Management Fund, and be available to the DOT for expenses related to the aircraft pool.

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