Editorial: Put limits on use of state planes

March 26, 2013 

— IT SEEMS almost too obvious to say that it was a gross abuse of our tax dollars for an obscure legislator to send the state plane up to Washington to pick up a celebrity to testify in favor of his bill. Almost, but not entirely, since there are some who are so blinded by partisan and ideological fixations that they can’t see beyond the bill that was being debated to the behavior that accompanied it.

Here’s a way to get past that blind spot: Imagine that the person we paid to fly in was Al Sharpton, and that he was giving political commentary in favor of a purely symbolic bill supporting, oh, slave reparations.

Still think it’s OK that you have to pick up the $6,400 tab for his flight?

Of course not.

And it wasn’t OK for Rep. Bill Chumley to use state funds to bring in syndicated columnist and talk-radio host Walter Williams to support his bill to nullify Obamacare.

This case was particularly galling because the “expert” was no expert (though he plays one on the radio) on the only topic that was relevant: whether the bill is constitutional. (Hint: It’s not.) It was particularly outrageous because Mr. Chumley’s GOP colleagues had decided in advance to transform his bill from one that is unconstitutional into one that is purely symbolic. It was particularly hypocritical because Mr. Chumley and Mr. Williams love to complain about wasteful government spending.

But those are just added insults. This would have been wasteful and abusive no matter what the topic, no matter what the level of expertise, no matter how important the legislation, no matter how consistent squandering state resources was with the political philosophy of the speaker and the legislator.

Was it illegal? Probably not. Our law allows statewide elected officials, state legislators and the thousands of members of part-time boards and commissions to use the state plan any time they want for “official business.” And it’s hard to argue that getting his bill passed isn’t part of the “official business” of a state legislator.

Which is part of the problem. The fact that the strongest thing House Speaker Bobby Harrell would say is that Mr. Chumley’s action sets a bad precedent illustrates how ridiculously vague — and liberal — our law is.

Indeed, the only reason we haven’t seen more abuses in recent decades is that legislators have not been so presumptuous with our state tax dollars. But it’s hard to imagine that they will be so self-restrained in the future if Mr. Chumley gets away with this. What’s next? Flying in Hollywood starlets, like some interest groups already do to razzle-dazzle legislators?

This isn’t like legislators’ expense accounts, over which they have complete discretion but which are limited, to $12,000. This is open-ended. The way the law is written, a legislator could, quite literally, use one of the state planes 365 days a year. With no oversight.

It’s probably not practical to spell out every permissible use of the state planes, though there’s nothing wrong with writing some more prohibited uses into state law. And legislators should do that.

They also should require someone to sign off on an individual legislator’s use of the plane — the speaker in the House and the president pro tempore in the Senate, for example. Double-ditto for members of state boards.

And if they can’t manage to do that, this year, then they need to follow Gov. Nikki Haley’s suggestion, and just sell the planes.

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