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Published January 14 2013

Forum editorial: Airplane argument flies low

In what looks to be a repeat of a legislative waste of time two years ago, a few North Dakota lawmakers still want North Dakota State University to sell its aging airplane. The argument is that the 1991 Beechcraft King Air B200 costs too much to lease and to operate, which is the same argument a few legislators made in the 2011 session.

It was a specious argument then, and it’s the same now.

The aircraft is leased to the university by the NDSU Development Foundation for quarterly payments of just less than $81,000. Records show hourly costs for operation at about $5,600, including certifications and insurance. Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, thinks that’s too high. He wants the university to sell the plane or he will ask the Legislature to end the leasing arrangement. Delzer, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, ought to know better.

Of course, what the operational costs don’t show is the significant amount of money saved by flying instead of using ground transportation. The costs of vehicle travel, hotels and meals and time lost by NDSU officials has not been fully factored into the long term cost-saving the plane generates. Furthermore, the plane not only flies NDSU personnel to in-state meetings and to the Legislature, it also is used by other officials and even a few legislators on occasion. Overall, it’s a good deal.

In a Legislature that is supposed to be business-friendly, it’s curious that one of the modern tools of successful businesses – the private airplane – is upsetting to some lawmakers. A check at Fargo’s Jet Center, for example, will reveal that more and more business owners either own or lease aircraft. They know that in the long run, an airplane is a wise investment for any businesses that are spread across the state or across several states. They know that time is money.

NDSU is one of the largest, most successful “businesses” in the region. When lawmakers make the case that government and higher education should be run more like businesses, it’s one of the few times they get it right. NDSU’s airplane is an integral part of that model. It makes no sense, therefore, to criticize an essentially sound business practice that is being embraced by more and more private sector business people.

If anything can be done to ease the concern of a handful of legislators, it should be to use the plane more in order to reduce hourly costs. It might be to expand the plane’s use for more than in-state travel. It might be to ensure coordination of travel so all of the few seats on the plane are filled. (The university strives to do as much now.) Those are management decisions, and a case can be made that the airplane can be used more efficiently.

But Delzer and his allies seem less interested in the efficacy and efficiency of an NDSU airplane than in doing some sort of power play with the university. Ultimately, that’s counterproductive for the university, and confirmation of pettiness and parochialism in at least a few corners of the Legislature.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.