JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Jay Nixon and other state officials could soon fly in a new $5.6 million plane purchased by the Missouri State Highway Patrol in a deal that legislators denounced Wednesday as a costly surprise.
Both Republican and Democratic senators raised concerns about the airplane's purchase during a budget hearing and a separate confirmation hearing for the appointment of longtime Nixon aide Doug Nelson as state commissioner of administration. As the current acting commissioner, Nelson approved the plane's purchase.
Documents provided to The Associated Press after the hearing show the state bought a King Air 250 airplane in December from Hawker Beechcraft Corp. in Wichita, Kan.
Nelson said the plane was bought with Highway Patrol funds specified for new automobiles and aircraft, including planes and helicopters. That fund is budgeted at $13 million for the current fiscal year.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer said he had "great concern" with the use of those funds to buy a new airplane. Schaefer said he learned of the plane's purchase only after the fact and would have expected the patrol to ask legislators for a specific appropriation for such a large purchase.
"It is highly unusual to purchase a plane out of that fund." Schaefer, R-Columbia, said.
Nelson defended the plane's purchase and said it is not his responsibility to overstep the Highway Patrol.
"(The patrol) has a funding source, they have funds in that source, and they have an appropriations line that allows them to make purchases of vehicles and aircraft. That's what they did," Nelson said.
Republican state Sen. Ryan Silvey, a former House Budget Committee Chairman from Kansas City, tweeted that the airplane purchase was "an outrage!" Democratic state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed of St. Louis called the purchase "short-sighted" and said it did not make sense given the tight budgets the state has faced in recent years.
The plane's purchase was not competitively bid. The Office of Administration provided documents to the AP that show the Highway Patrol specifically requested approval to buy the King 250 airplane because it seats more passengers than and has similar flight training procedures as a King Air 90C that the patrol already owns. Hawker Beechcraft is the only manufacturer of the King Air 250.
The King Air 250's specifications show that the twin-engine, turbo-prop plane can carry seven passengers plus two crew members. The documents show that two additional jump seats were installed at no additional cost, and the Highway Patrol plans to keep the older King Air 90C model.
Schaefer said his committee will be conducting a thorough review of the plane's purchase.
Nixon spokesman Scott Holste declined to comment about whether the governor's office had requested the purchase of the plane, nor whether Nixon intends to use it. Holste referred questions to the Highway Patrol, which did not immediately return telephone messages Wednesday.
Federal Aviation Administration records show that the Highway Patrol registered the plane earlier this month.
Nixon has faced past criticism for his traveling habits. A state audit last year revealed that Nixon billed $550,000 to other state agencies for trips in state-owned airplanes from 2009 to June 2011. Lawmakers intervened in 2012 and placed restrictions in the state's annual budget on the governor's ability to bill other state departments for travel.