Video: State Patrol seeks $13.9M replacement helicopter, splitting lawmakersApr 15, 2022 11:02AM ● By Editor
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By Theo Keith from Fox 9 News • April 14, 2022
Minnesota lawmakers are butting heads over the State Patrol's request for a $13.9 million, twin-engine helicopter to replace an aging aircraft.
Troopers say their nine-member aviation team and aircraft are flying more than ever. Increasingly, the agency's two helicopters are part of the strategy to stop carjackers and track down suspects.
"We’ve had a record number of people fleeing from the police, both in Minnesota and across the country," State Patrol Col. Matt Langer said in an interview. "One of the ways we can make those pursuits or apprehensions safer is by having air assets."
The helicopter proposal has split lawmakers. House Democrats haven't agreed to any State Patrol fleet upgrades amid frustrations from Minneapolis residents over helicopter noise. Senate Republicans, on the other hand, have proposed $45 million for new aircraft.
Gov. Tim Walz put the $13.9 million replacement aircraft in a supplemental budget request in March. The new helicopter would replace a single-engine version that's been in use since 2005. It can fly faster, higher and safer in the event of engine failure, troopers said.
The new helicopter would have a 300-foot hoist and would be capable of performing nighttime search and rescue missions, while the current aircraft can only do those operations during daytime hours. The State Patrol does six to seven search and rescue missions a year, Langer said.
Troopers also estimate it will require 35 percent less maintenance because of design improvements over the past two decades. When one of the State Patrol's two helicopters is out of service for scheduled maintenance, the agency must rely on the other.
"We can manage (scheduled maintenance). It's when something happens that isn't planned," said Lt. Craig Benz, the State Patrol's chief pilot.
But any spending on helicopters is controversial. Residents in south Minneapolis have grown weary of rotor noise during carjacking stings in recent years. Privacy advocates are seeking new controls on surveillance in a series of proposals at the Capitol.
Then there's the question of timing: Walz did not include the helicopter proposal in his initial spending plan when the legislative session started in January.
"This was a pretty late-breaking request," said House Transportation Committee Chairman Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis. "I think it just needs to be vetted a little more."
Democrats who control the House have not included any money for State Patrol aircraft replacement in their transportation omnibus bill, drawing criticism from minority Republicans.
"We have to stop the spirit of lawlessness happening in our cities," state Rep. John Heinrich, R-Anoka, said during a committee hearing last week.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans' proposal would pay for three new helicopters and three fixed-wing airplanes. Democrats have questioned why the Legislature would consider spending more than the State Patrol is seeking.
"We want to take care of the State Patrol and make sure they do their important work," state Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said last week after Republicans rejected a DFL proposal to spend $10 million on a housing initiative. "But we can find that $45 million (for the State Patrol) and we can’t find this $10 million (for housing). I don’t understand that."
The State Patrol has heard the noise complaints from Minneapolis residents about its helicopters. The new aircraft won't necessarily reduce noise in the Metro, Langer said.
"This initiative is not based on noise mitigation. It’s based on public safety need," he said. "Whether or not there is a noise advantage -- we’re hopeful that it makes it better for people on the ground, but it’s not the reason why we’re pursuing this."