Sell state-owned planes if their use is a problem

info@islandpacket.comOctober 17, 2012 

Gov. Nikki Haley's response to reimbursing $9,590 for her use of a state-owned plane is to suggest the state sell its planes.

That might not be a bad idea. If state officials find it hard to sort out what is and isn't an appropriate use for the taxpayer-supported planes, then perhaps we should remove temptation.

Haley reimbursed the state after the Associated Press raised questions about her using the planes to tour the state for ceremonial bill signings and news conferences on ethics and tax reforms.

A proviso in the state budget prohibits use of the planes for those purposes. The governor's staff pleaded ignorance, but they should have known better. The proviso, which was put in the 2011-2012 budget and again in the 2012-2013 budget, specifies that bill signings, news conferences and political functions don't count as official business.

Statewide officers and legislators can use the planes at no cost to them on a first-come, first-served basis, as long as the trips are official business. Agencies and public colleges also can use the planes for official business, but they must pay the state Aeronautics Commission, which owns the planes: $840 an hour for the six-seat King Air C90 and $1,260 an hour for the nine-seat King Air 350, according to the commission's spokesman.

For the past two years, starting with former Gov. Mark Sanford's travels, a lot of questions have been raised about who can use state-owned planes and the reasons they can use them.

In 2010 , Sanford had to pay $7,794 to the state Division of Aeronautics and the state Department of Natural Resources for his personal use of state-owned aircraft.

As a result of questions raised about Sanford's travels, auditors reviewed 1,600 flight logs for aircraft then owned by the Aeronautics Commission, DNR and the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division. They found no "significant problems," but made suggestions about how to keep better track of the planes' use.

The auditors recommended more detailed flight information, including the name and contact information for the person authorizing the flight and each passenger's affiliation.

The specificity of the budget proviso is not hard to understand. State officials don't seem to handle ambiguity well when it comes to ethics rules.

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, a co-sponsor of the proviso and Haley's opponent in the 2010 election, said, "We had seen some of our leaders spending more time trying to be in front of the camera than using it for state business. When politicians are being politicians, they ought to use their own campaign funds. They ought not to politic on the state's dollar. ... (The planes) are for truly administrative government functions, such as meetings with economic-development clients."

Sheheen also pointed out that the issue pre-dates Haley's time as governor.

South Carolina is, as state Sen. Jake Knotts noted, small enough that you can get just about anywhere within a two- to three-hour drive of Columbia.

And with smartphones and other helpful technology, no one is really out of touch even in that short time. Unproductive time in a car isn't a valid excuse to fly.

Still, we hold out hope that officials can figure out what is and isn't appropriate use of publicly owned planes so that air travel remains an option. And if not, they can always pay the piper after the fact.

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