Stevens defends jet leasing idea

Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Sen. Ted Stevens has no apologies for proposing that the Air Force lease a fleet of new 767 jets as refueling tankers.

The idea became law, even though it was harshly criticized in the final month of the 2001 congressional session as financially unsound and a bailout for Boeing Co.

''It was my idea, I confess to that,'' Stevens said in a recent interview with Alaska reporters.

He said the criticism has not diminished his support. Leasing could bring the military some badly needed new refueling planes in a time of tight federal budgets, he said.

The language Stevens inserted in the Defense appropriations bill signed by President Bush Thursday, authorizes the lease of 100 planes for 10 years.

Boeing prices a 767 military tanker at between $150 million and $225 million, according to the company's Web site. The Air Force estimates that a commercial 767 converted to military use would cost $150 million, counting the cost of changing it back to civilian configuration when the lease expires, Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels said in response to a congressional inquiry.

Daniels estimated the government's bill at $25 billion for the proposed 10-year lease program and tanker modifications. That works out to an average annual cost of $25 million per plane.

That's much cheaper initially than buying, but it's billions more in the long run. Also, the Air Force ends up with no plane when the lease expires.

Stevens indicated, however, that he didn't come up with the leasing plan because it would be cheaper. He said the lease gets around a problem created by the way Congress counts its own spending.

''The main reason is, if you want to look at it, under our budget control program, we couldn't buy them because we have to commit for the full purchase price in terms of budgeting authority,'' Stevens said. ''When you look at the lease, you only commit to the annual cost of that lease.''

Also, he said, the leases would be paid from an operations account. Purchases must come from a procurement account, which is ''totally used up,'' he said.

Critics of the program say this is just smoke, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

''For Sen. Stevens to say he did this this way because he is worried about the budget authority, I think, is disingenuous,'' said David Williams, vice president of policy for Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington, D.C., taxpayer advocacy group.

Under the lease plan, Boeing isn't going to drop 100 planes in the military's lap next year. The proposal outlined by OMB's Daniels estimated the first four leased planes would be ready in fiscal 2005, rising to the full 100 in service by fiscal 2011.

So another alternative to the lease, with similar results, might be to buy just a few planes a year.

Williams said former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has taken that sort of gradual approach to funding warships built in his home state during the past few years.

''We're critical of Trent Lott for funding a ship, but at least we're going to own that,'' Williams said.

An actual lease is still far from reality, however.

''The only action resulting from the 2002 appropriations bill is to provide the Air Force with the authority to pursue a lease,'' said Capt. Joe Della Vedova, Air Force spokesman in Washington. ''A lease deal has not yet been negotiated.''

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