JEFFERSON CITY — The head of the Missouri State Highway Patrol defended his agency's purchase of a $5.6 million plane, telling upset lawmakers Wednesday that the new aircraft was needed because of high demand for flying time from state officials.
Patrol Superintendent Col. Ronald Replogle told the House Budget Committee that the patrol needed another plane for its homicide and drug investigations. He said 70 percent of the old plane's flying time was devoted to transporting state officials, including Gov. Jay Nixon.
"We have had to turn flights down because we don't have aircraft available," Replogle said, adding that the patrol intends to keep its old plane.
Flight records previously provided to The Associated Press by the Highway Patrol show that Nixon used the plane for 220 of its 263 flights from May 2010 until October 2011.
Replogle said the agency's new nine-passenger King Air 250 would cost about $900 an hour to operate. The old, 1999 model King Air 90C, costs around $650 an hour to operate. Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-St. Louis, said she was upset by the high operating costs and called the plane's purchase "appalling."
"It is hard for taxpayers to look at this and not ask questions about what is going on in Jefferson City," Rep. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said.
Replogle responded that the new plane was bought at a discounted price. The King Air 250 came with an extended warranty because it was new. Training for the pilots and mechanics also was included in the price.
The committee's leaders pressed Replogle on why the legislature was not consulted before the plane was bought. Vice-chairman Rep. Tom Flanigan, R-Carthage, said not being informed about the plane made it look like the patrol was hiding something.
The fund used by the Highway Patrol to purchase the plane allows for the agency to buy cars, boats and aircraft at its discretion, but Replogle apologized for the lack of communication.
"Hindsight is 20-20," he said.
Wednesday's hearing may not conclude the inquiry into the plane's purchase. House members requested the new plane's flight logs and any communication between the patrol and the governor's office about the purchase. The committee is also asking acting Commissioner of Administration Doug Nelson, who approved the purchase last month, to appear at a hearing.
The plane's first flight occurred Jan. 18, and it has been used several times since, Federal Aviation Administration records show.