State spends big bucks on a luxury plane as budgets get slashed

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

PHOENIX -- Arizona is in the middle of a major budget crisis as it struggles to fix a massive shortfall. But one state agency is about to shell out millions on a luxury airplane to replace the one it already has.

The Arizona Department of Transportation is about to shell out $6 million on a package that includes a new aircraft and a costly aerial mapping system.

The deal appears to contradict the political philosophy of new Gov. Doug Ducey, who was elected on a platform of less government spending.

Officials in the Ducey administration say their boss was unaware of ADOT's plans until 3TV contacted them this week.

Ducey has since launched a review to determine if the purchase is necessary. If not, the governor will look for ways to kill it.

However, his office is concerned it might be too late.

"As the governor has said, government should not be immune from a struggling economy and he's committed to ensuring taxpayer dollars are spent wisely," said Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the governor.

Ducey inherited a massive $1 billion budget deficit when he was sworn in at the beginning of the month.

Among his first actions was an immediate state hiring freeze. Ducey also proposed other cost-saving strategies such as deep cuts to state universities, junior college budgets, and most other state agencies. 

Given that context, other legislative leaders questioned why ADOT would move forward with their plan.

"I know there are a lot of my constituents down in Pima County who would like to see $5 or $6 million spent on filling potholes," said Senate Minority Leader Steve Farley.

ADOT officials would not go on camera for an interview but issued a statement.

It said the department's current airplane is nearly 40 years old and needs to be replaced. In addition, they need new aerial mapping equipment to help with projects.

Last year, ADOT used their current plane 24 times for mapping and 76 times to transport passengers.

The tab on the new aircraft is $4.5 million, while the mapping system costs $1.5 million.

Sen. Carlyle Begay, D-Tuba City, sits on the Senate Transportation Committee. And he believes there are cheaper ways for ADOT to conduct business.

"I think you can subcontract that type of service, there are plenty of companies that do that very well and I'm sure they have greater economies of scale in providing that service,"

But the question is, can the governor stop the deal from closing if he decides to? It has not been finalized but it is very close.

According to state records, ADOT started the process of buying the plane in 2013, under then-Gov. Jan Brewer.

The contract was awarded in September and ADOT issued the go-ahead to buy the plane on November 14. That was 10 days after Ducey was elected, but before he took office.

During the campaign, Ducey specifically said he would audit all state agencies and conduct a "review of state assets, including vehicles, aircraft, and repair shops," to determine if taxpayer money could be saved.

ADOT has yet to answer why they did not alert the incoming governor of their intentions.