After debating the pros and cons, South Carolina lawmakers voted Friday not to sell the two state-owned airplanes. The issue came up as three senators and three House members are working out a final version of next year’s state budget.
The planes are supposed to be used for state business, like flying state officials to meetings with businesses that could move to the state. But there have been questions about many of the flights, like earlier this year when Spartanburg Rep. Bill Chumley flew economist and commentator Walter Williams from Washington, D.C. to Columbia so he could testify in favor of a bill to nullify the federal Affordable Care Act.
"Politicians are using state planes as their play toys,” Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, told the budget conference committee. “And it's been proven on both sides of the aisle, for as long as I've been down here, the problems we've had with the use and misuse of the state planes. I'm not saying not use planes, but charter the planes. The state does not need to own aircraft, two aircraft."
But Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, who pointed out that he’s never flown on one of the state planes, said the planes are an important economic development tool. "We're a state that makes airplanes, yet we don't want to have one. We make tires, Senator Peeler. We make automobiles. I wonder if there has been any misuse of automobiles. Maybe we ought to not have those, either, or the rubber that runs on the ground."
But Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia, sided with Sen. Peeler in wanting to sell the planes. "I don't think it kills economic development, 'cause there are still plenty of ways for them to travel. It just stops other people from being able to travel on the state plane," he said.
The third senator on the conference committee, Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, is against selling the planes. "We're not solving the problem,” he said. “It's a people problem. The people, we heard, that creates the problem. You've got the same people going to decide to charter, so have we really done anything if we do this?"
And Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said selling the planes would actually cost taxpayers more money. "I can tell you, from a studying aspect, chartering's going to cost a whole lot more than owning and using it," he said.
Those wanting to sell the planes didn’t have enough votes, so the state will keep them. The committee did agree to some new restrictions, though. The governor and lawmakers will not be allowed to use the planes to fly to news conferences or bill signings, and state colleges and universities will not be able to use them for sports recruiting trips.
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