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Money From Selling Old State Plane Can Be Used To Buy Jet

By Barry Massey/
Associated Press
      SANTA FE — Gov. Bill Richardson's administration has received a green light from the attorney general to partially pay for a $5.5 million jet plane using money from the sale of a 1978 propeller-driven aircraft.
    Attorney General Patricia Madrid said in a letter released Friday that no action by the Legislature is necessary for the General Services Department to spend the more than $500,000 it's getting from selling a 1978 Beechcraft King Air C-90, a twin-engine turboprop.
    The administration has sold the plane to make up the difference between $5 million provided by the Legislature to buy a state airplane and the $5.45 million purchase price negotiated for a new Cessna Citation Bravo.
    The jet is to be delivered to the state in August, although no specific date has been set for that to happen, according to General Services Secretary Edward Lopez Jr.
    Rep. Greg Payne, R-Albuquerque, had asked the attorney general whether the Legislature needed to approve expenditure of the money received from selling the turboprop. It's one of three airplanes owned by the state and used to transport government officials. State planes also are used by the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired to fly students to their homes.
    Payne said Friday that he disagreed with Madrid's legal analysis but hasn't decided what step to take next. His options include filing a lawsuit to try to stop the jet purchase or asking the Legislature next year to force the administration to sell the jet, he said.
    "The contortions they've gone through to justify purchasing this luxury jet are just unreal,'' Payne said of the legal opinion. "I'm incredibly disappointed in it. The attorney general had an opportunity to stand up for the state Constitution and stand up for the taxpayers of New Mexico and choose not to.''
    Payne suggested that Richardson drop plans to buy the jet and return to a proposal from 2004 to buy a newer model turboprop to upgrade the state fleet.
    "I don't see the debate over this jet going away any time soon,'' Payne said.
    The state Republican Party has broadcast radio ads in New Mexico and New Hampshire criticizing the Democratic governor for what it calls his "rich and famous lifestyle.'' The jet purchase is included in the ad.
    The attorney general's office, in a letter to Payne, said state law allows a department to sell tangible personal property and money received from the sale is credited to that agency. By authorizing that, the Legislature has done all that's necessary, according to Madrid and Assistant Attorney General Martha A. Daly.
    The administration received four bids from potential buyers of the older model turboprop and last week Lopez accepted the highest bid, not quite $583,000, which came from an out-of-state aviation company.
    Lopez said Friday the buyer, Preferred Aviation Inc. of Byron Center, Mich., will take title and possession of the 1978 plane when the state receives the jet. He called the attorney general's letter "not unexpected but good news.''
    Billy Sparks, a spokesman for Richardson, defended the purchase of the jet and pointed out that the Legislature unanimously approved a bill that included the $5 million for a new airplane. The money was part of a measure financing more than $400 million for capital improvements across the state.
    "The ruling of the attorney general confirms that the General Services Department followed established practices and procedures in purchasing the new aircraft for New Mexico,'' Sparks said. "Despite the attempt to make this a partisan issue and in light of the fact that every member of the Legislature voted to authorize the purchase of a new plane, the fact is that this purchase is in the long-term best interests of the state's overall transportation needs.''
    Richardson asked lawmakers to provide $5 million for an aircraft after abandoning a plan last year to buy a late model turboprop — without legislative approval — by transferring $4 million from a fund that pays for highway construction.
    Madrid threatened legal action last August to stop the administration's plane purchase. She said it was illegal to make the purchase with $4 million from the fund that pays for highway construction and operations of the Transportation Department.
    The department issued a request for proposals in January that expanded the list of planes the state would consider buying to include a corporate jet.
    When the proposed aircraft purchase was first disclosed last year, the administration said it wanted to replace a 1966 Aero Commander, which was grounded last year and later sold for $58,500.