Gov. Frank Murkowski says he has gotten a bad rap on his plan to sell one of the state's two propeller planes he uses for official travel and use the money to lease a jet.
At a news conference Wednesday, he said he didn't believe the public has disapproved of his plan. In a newspaper opinion piece, also Wednesday, he said that critics in the media have ignored what he contends are the merits of leasing the jet.
"There's more interest in this than there is in the budget and the question is why," he said.
In addition to the governor's official travel, Murkowski said, the two King Air propeller planes currently owned by the state are used about 60 percent of the time to transport inmates to and from a private prison in Arizona. He said the state Department of Public Safety would sell one of the planes for around $600,0000 to rent the jet.
The department is considering leasing a Westwind jet for about $30,000 a month with an option to buy, he said. The sticker price for the jet is about $2 million, he said.
The Westwind has a maximum cruising speed of 424 knots, compared to the King Air, which travels at speeds up to 270 knots.
"The only difference between the King Air and the Westwind really are the engines," he said. "You're replacing a turboprop with a jet. And you go higher and you go faster."
He said the jet would cut his travel time and provide him more time to work on state business. He said the jet also would allow the Public Safety Department to transport prisoners to and from the Arizona prison in one day instead of two.
It is Murkowski's third try at getting the jet. Last year he was turned down by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security when he sought to buy a jet with federal money because it did not fall within the parameters for using the money. Earlier this year the Legislature cut $1.4 million from Murkowski's proposed budget that was to be used to buy the jet.
Now some lawmakers now are trying to block his efforts to lease it.
Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, wants to insert language into next year's operating budget to keep the state from buying, leasing or operating a jet. He said he opposes using state money for a jet because it is a luxury that is not suited to the needs of the state.
One day, when all of Alaska's runways are paved and longer, a jet could make sense, but for now, the King Air propeller plane is the best means of travel in the state, he said.
In Wednesday's meeting of the House and Senate conference committee on the budget, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said the committee did not have the power to include Croft's amendment in the budget negotiations.
The conference committee is meeting this week to work out the differences between the two versions of the budget that passed the House and Senate.
After Wednesday's meeting, Croft said he believed the committee could insert the language under the rules of the Legislature, and that he would bring the amendment back when the committee meets on Thursday.
"I'll make that argument and try that last gasp," Croft said.
If the amendment is rejected, Croft said, a point will be reached where Murkowski "can pretty well thwart what I think is clear, the will of the Legislature and the people."