COLUMBIA — S.C. lawmakers erupted Wednesday – and one threatened to file an ethics complaint – after a state representative used a state-owned plane to bring a syndicated columnist to Columbia to testify on a bill that would nullify the federal health-care overhaul law.
State Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Spartanburg, authorized the trip, valued at $6,390, from a Washington, D.C., suburb for columnist Walter Williams, according to state Aeronautics Commission records. Williams is a George Mason University economics professor, who also is occasional fill-in for conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh,.
Williams testified Wednesday before a state House panel in support of Chumley’s bill that would ban any state agency or employee from carrying out the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare.
Chumley said his bill has generated controversy, justifying use of a state-owned plane to fly Williams to Columbia and back to the D.C. area. “When it’s a very important bill like this, I want to hear from the experts.”
Chumley said he cleared the trip with the House Ethics Committee staff members before arranging the flight. But House ethics chairman Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, said he was not aware that Chumley had contacted his committee’s staff.
Another witness who testified against the Affordable Care Act before a House committee Wednesday told the panel he was paid $7,500 in expenses to appear, sparking more questions.
Use of state planes long has been controversial, ensnarling former Gov. Mark Sanford and current Gov. Nikki Haley in disputes.
Lawmakers in both chambers were buzzing about Chumley’s use of a state-owned plane Wednesday. Many said they had not heard of legislators using the plane to bring witnesses to Columbia to testify on legislation.
Opinions on whether Chumley violated a state law were mixed.
State Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, says he thinks Chumley’s use of a state-owned plane violated state law. Bringing a witness to testify at a hearing is not official business and does not justify use of state money, Smith said.
Smith said he is preparing to file a complaint to file with the House Ethics Committee.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said he was not sure whether Chumley’s actions violated state law. But, he added, use of a state plane to fly a witness in to testify sets a “dangerous precedent.”
Harrell, the most frequent user of state-owned aircraft among lawmakers in recent months, said he was unaware of any legislators having used a state plane for that purpose before. The state planes most often are used for economic-development reasons, he added.
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, expressed concern state-owned aircraft could be abused by the General Assembly’s 170 legislators.