Does Gov. Chris Gregoire need access to two state-owned airplanes?
A number of state senators don't believe she does and would like to sell the two planes -- eight-seat Beechcraft King Airs -- as a way to help balance the state budget. They view the planes as a frill that is simply too expensive for the state.
But the governor's office contends the state could spend more money for airline tickets or chartering flights if the King Airs were not available, although the calculations seem to be skewed to bolster the argument.
Still, if these were normal times, we might side with the governor's office. However, we remain in the shadow of the Great Recession and every expense must be scrutinized.
The fact is these planes, which cost about $500,000 a year to maintain and operate in the past, are not used very much anymore because of previous budget cuts.
Tacoma News Tribune writer Jordan Schrader reported Tuesday the governor is the most frequent user of the planes over the past two years at 64 total hours. The Department of Corrections logged about 50 hours transporting prisoners.
The State Patrol's Investigative Services Bureau -- which includes detectives, a crime-scene response team, a bomb squad and the SWAT team -- has used the planes fewer than 17 hours, according to Schrader. State Patrol Chief John Batiste added another seven hours of flight time.
"The SWAT team argument is just baloney," said Rodney Tom, D-Medina. "It's just not used. It's nice for the chief there to have his own airplane, but these days when we're cutting education and health care, does the chief really need to fly around in a LearJet?"
The State Patrol, which also has five four-passenger, single-engine Cessnas, argues the bigger planes are needed and must be available when an incident arises.
"We're not flying the SWAT team somewhere every day, but when you need 'em, boy you need 'em," State Patrol spokesman Robert Calkins said.
The question then is whether the $1 million-plus price tag for the two planes in this budget cycle is a wise use of public money. We'd have to say no given the current fiscal pinch.
The governor, the State Patrol and the Department of Corrections can make other arrangements that might be more inconvenient, but -- in the long run -- would be more cost effective. Selling the planes would also garner the state some needed cash.
And it's also symbolic. It sends the message that state officials are sacrificing just like the state employees and citizens are being asked to do in the midst of this budget crisis.