COLUMBIA — A state Senate bill, introduced Wednesday with support from Democrats and Tea Party-leaning Republicans, would ban the use of state-owned planes to bring people to Columbia to testify on bills.
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, also would require legislators to get permission from state Senate and House leaders before using the planes.
The proposal is a response to state Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Spartanburg, who used a state-owned plane last month to bring Walter Williams, a Washington, D.C., conservative pundit and occasional fill-in host for Rush Limbaugh, to Columbia to testify before a House committee. The trip cost taxpayers $6,390.
Williams spoke at a hearing on a bill that Chumley is sponsoring that would ban state employees from aiding in carrying out the federal Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare
Lourie said there would be “uproar” if other legislators started flying in people to testify on bills that they support. “What happens if Sen. (Vincent) Sheheen (a Kershaw County Democrat) decides to bring in somebody like Rachel Maddow? ... We can’t have this kind of stuff happening with the use of our state airplane.”
State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, was among four Republicans who immediately signed on as cosponsors of Sheheen’s bill.
Bright said the state should get rid of its planes, the use of which has entangled two governors – Mark Sanford and Nikki Haley – in controversy.
“I don’t think we’re flying around kidneys and livers for transplants,” Bright said, adding the state could charter private planes easily if needed. “Most of this is for reasons that are not life and death.”
State law now allows legislators to use state planes for official state business but does not define appropriate uses. Some uses are banned, including routine transportation and using the plane for bill signings, press conferences and political functions.
If Lourie’s bill becomes law, members of the House and Senate would have to get permission from their chambers’ leaders – the speaker of the House and Senate president pro tempore – to use a state plane. Members of state boards and commissions would need permission from their chairman or chairwoman.
Lourie said “there is no way” that House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, “would have signed off on Bill Chumley flying that guy in from Washington, D.C.”
Harrell said last month that Chumley’s use of a state plane was unusual and set a dangerous precedent. The state planes mostly are used for economic-development meetings, he said.
Lourie again called on Chumley to reimburse the state for the cost of Williams’ transportation.
Chumley, who said he could support Lourie’s effort to clarify the law, said Wednesday he has no intention of repaying the state.
Chumley said what he did was allowed, adding he “was trying to save taxpayers a lot of money” by bringing a supporter of his bill to Columbia to testify about it. “It is found to be that I violated any kind of rules, then I would pay it back,” he said.
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, has asked the House Ethics Committee to issue an advisory opinion on whether Chumley’s use of a state plane was appropriate. House Ethics Committee chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, said none has been issued yet.