SC legislators: Get football coaches off state planes

abeam@thestate.comFebruary 11, 2013 

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— State colleges and universities could not use state-owned aircraft to recruit athletes, according to a proposal a House budget subcommittee approved Monday.

State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, proposed the ban after learning Clemson University football coaches have used a state-owned plane for recruiting trips.

“I don’t think that anyone in the state feels like they need to be spending tax dollars and time in the state plane to go recruit for athletic programs,” said Merrill, a USC graduate, adding he learned about the trips, the subject of an October article published in The State, after reading a posting on the fitsnews.com blog.

State Rep. B.R. Skelton, R-Pickens, a Clemson graduate, was the only lawmaker to vote against the proposal. Skelton said football coaches at the state’s public universities use university-owned planes for recruiting trips. But if the university-owned plane is not available, they use a state plane.

“It’s my understanding when they use the state plane for recruiting purposes, they pay for it,” he said. “If we prohibit that kind of activity, then we could have a state plane sitting on the tarmac and ... force the athletic department to charter a private plane.”

Attempts to reach Clemson football officials Monday were unsuccessful.

USC uses two university-owned planes for recruiting trips.

In October, The State newspaper reported Clemson was the heaviest user of state-owned planes.

At the time, Clemson officials said the Upstate university was using state-owned aircraft more often than in previous years because Clemson had sold one of the two planes it owned. Clemson said paying to use a state-owned plane was cheaper than chartering aircraft. As of October, Clemson had reimbursed the state $90,455 for 30 flights

Clemson president James Barker used the planes the most, followed by the head football coach, Dabo Swinney, and head basketball coach, Brad Brownell.

Since then, Swinney and his football staff have stepped up their use of the state-owned planes, according to flight records.

The use of the state-owned planes is a hot topic because, in part, national signing day was Wednesday. That is the first day high school athletes could sign letters of intent to play for a particular university.

But the use of state planes long has been controversial.

Former Gov. Mark Sanford paid more than $70,000 in fines to settle allegations that his use of state planes violated state ethics laws. More recently, some legislators have objected to Gov. Nikki Haley’s use of state planes to fly around the state for bill signings and press conferences. Subsequently, Haley, reimbursed the state almost $10,000.

College football programs often are a school’s biggest marketing tools, especially for Clemson and USC, which appear frequently on national television. And colleges spend lots of money to recruit players. Merrill agrees the teams promote the schools and the state of South Carolina.

“Planes funded by their foundations or owned by the university, they can use that for whatever they want to,” Merrill said. “(Planes) owned by taxpayers and used for official business – I don’t think recruiting is necessarily official business.”

It is unclear if Merrill’s proposed ban, now part of the state budget, has the support of a majority of lawmakers. The House is scheduled to debate next month a new state budget that would take effect July 1. The Senate will debate the budget in the spring. Gov. Haley, a Clemson graduate, must sign the new budget into law by June 30.

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