House legislators agreed Tuesday to use $8.7 million in transportation funding to replace a rundown plane used by the State Bureau of Investigations – despite concerns from some that the budget shouldn’t take money intended for roads.
The SBI’s 40-year-old Beechcraft King Air plane has been used to catch criminals, extradite fugitives from other states, perform search and rescue missions and conduct drug investigations.
But it’s no longer in condition to fly. The plane’s brakes and landing gear failed during flights, and a fire filled the cockpit with smoke. An SBI spokeswoman told the N.C. Insider that attorney general Roy Cooper – who until recently oversaw the agency – had “ignored the problem and provided no assistance.” Cooper’s office said other spending ranked higher than the plane during lean budget years.
Most legislators on the House Appropriations Committee agreed that a new plane should be a priority in this year’s budget. But some said budget writers shouldn’t take the money from transportation funding. After years of using road dollars for other purposes, the legislature agreed last year to stop those transfers. That change has allowed the state to speed up road projects.
“I am very concerned about it being taken away from the roadway maintenance fund,” said Rep. Chris Millis, a Pender County Republican. “I think that heading down this direction is definitely a slippery slope. I would humbly ask that we find other types of state money.”
But supporters of using transportation money for the plane said they won’t make a habit of such transfers. And they said they hope to find another funding source for the plane as the final budget is negotiated with Senate leaders.
“We are not going down a slippery slope,” said Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican. “This is nothing other than seeing a need one time.”
But Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh Democrat, said that’s a hard promise to make. When the budget gets tight, he said, “we go looking for the biggest pot of money around. ... That’s how it always starts. The first hit is always free.”
Rep. Nelson Dollar of Cary, the House’s senior budget writer, said the SBI plane must be included in the budget bill. “The current craft is not flying, and it is a unique aircraft for which there is no replacement or substitute available to the SBI at this time,” he said.
If the funding survives budget negotiations, the SBI plans to buy a Pilatus PC-12 NG Spectre, which is designed for law enforcement investigations and surveillance missions.
The full House is scheduled to vote on the entire $22.225 billion on Wednesday.
N.C. Insider staff writer Patrick Gannon contributed to this report