Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – It won’t be a fancy jet. Everyone wants to make that clear.
But New Mexico officials might take to the sky again under a bipartisan plan floated by Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and chairman of the influential Legislative Finance Committee.
He said Tuesday that he expects to propose funding in next year’s state budget for a plane that would help Cabinet secretaries and other officials travel throughout New Mexico – the nation’s fifth-largest state by area.
Smith said he was thinking of something more modest than the executive jet famously sold in 2011 by then-Gov. Susana Martinez, who made it a symbol of government excess.
“I don’t think we’re exercising commonsense on that,” Smith said of the aircraft debate. “When you’re trying to get around the state, it is flat stupid – it’s flat ridiculous – not to be able to get you there as quickly as possible.”
Sen. Steven Neville, an Aztec Republican and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, said he would support the idea.
Smith didn’t reveal any potential cost estimates in Tuesday’s budget hearing. But he told the state’s general services secretary, Ken Ortiz, that he expects to propose funding for a plane in the budget lawmakers consider next year.
Ortiz, whose department oversees the state’s vehicle fleet, said a Beechcraft King Air C90GTx – a small airplane powered by twin turboprop engines – would probably cost about $2.5 million if it’s bought used or $4 million new. By contrast, he said, an executive jet would cost closer to $10 million.
Ortiz said the state already has a similar plane that takes some students to and from the state’s School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Alamogordo, allowing them to visit their families in northern New Mexico on the weekend. The plane – a six-passenger, turboprop Beechcraft King Air C90 – is sometimes out of service, he said, leaving the state without a backup unless it borrows one.
The plane is also used to fly medical providers to help children and adults under 21 who have special health care needs – part of the Children’s Medical Services program in the Department of Health.
It can also be used by public officials if it’s available.
For about 200 hours of flight, the King Air costs the state about $200,000 to $224,000 in fuel and maintenance.
New Mexico, at one point, had four aircraft, Ortiz said, but is now down to just the one.
Smith suggested a plane would encourage state officials to visit remote parts of the state and respond better to community needs, among other potential benefits.
One Cabinet secretary, he said, recently had to be on the Mexican border for a legislative hearing one day, then back in Santa Fe the next – a distance of hundreds of miles. The secretary had yet another meeting elsewhere the following day, Smith said.
It’s roughly a 7½-hour drive, or about 490 miles, between Farmington and Hobbs, two energy-rich regions of New Mexico.
“I think a prudent aircraft would be in order,” Smith said.
New Mexico’s jet was a politically explosive topic during the 2010 race for governor. Martinez, a Republican, made selling the Cessna Citation Executive jet a centerpiece of her campaign.
The administration of then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, bought the jet for $5.5 million in 2005. Martinez sold it six years later for about $2.5 million.
The eight-seat jet – which had an ice chest and accent lighting – cost nearly $500,000 a year to maintain, state officials said in 2011.
Then-General Services Secretary Ed Burckle said the luxury jet was better suited for long-distance travel, not the kind of trips necessary in New Mexico. It had no place, he said, in the state fleet.
Smith made it a point Tuesday to say the administration of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham hadn’t requested a new aircraft.
“Let the blame fall on me,” he said.