Editorial: SC Legislature needs to crack down on abuse of state planes, vehicles

12/17/2013 12:00 AM

12/16/2013 5:24 PM

REP. BILL CHUMLEY clearly squandered tax dollars when he sent the state plane up to Washington this spring to pick up a celebrity with no expertise on the subject to testify before his subcommittee on his purely symbolic bill that clearly was going to be approved.

So we’re glad that, eight months after the fact, the House Ethics Committee has decided to look into the matter, even if it is a pretty transparent effort to convince the public that legislators are up to the task of policing their own ethics. Which, almost by definition, they never will be.

But in a state where Treasurer Richard Eckstrom once was able to check out a state minivan and take it on a joyride to Minnesota for a family vacation, and where Gov. Nikki Haley could round up her campaign aides and travel by state car with her security detail to give a purely political speech to a purely political engagement in another state, it’s not at all clear to us that such shenanigans are illegal. And that is a significant problem.

Indeed, a stronger case probably could be made against Mr. Eckstrom and Ms. Haley, both of whom received political absolution from the State Ethics Commission, which oddly enough is now questioning Mr. Eckstrom’s use of campaign funds to attend a political event out of state.

It would be wonderful if we could count on our elected officials not just to talk about how outrageous it is to squander tax money but to live like they mean it. But as is clear from Mr. Eckstrom’s joyriding and as is clear from Ms. Haley’s politicking, and as is clear Mr. Chumley, we can’t count on that.

So even more important than what the House Ethics Committee decides to do about Mr. Chumley is what the Legislature decides to do about the law.

Currently, any legislator, any statewide elected official and any of the thousands of members of part-time boards and commissions can check out a state plane any time they want for “official business.” That’s a too-broad term, which allows any of those folks to use the plane to, for instance, avoid a one-hour drive to a meeting in another city. And who knows what else.

At a minimum, the Legislature needs to 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. Similar, if not more stringent, requirements should be put in place for members of state boards.

It’s probably not practical to spell out every permissible use of the state planes and other state vehicles, but lawmakers should write some prohibited uses into state law, starting perhaps with anything related to vacations, and following up with any out-of-state travel to partisan events or political fundraisers, regardless of who the recipient of those funds is.

To do anything less is to acknowledge that the only time they only care about tax dollars being squandered is when someone else is doing the squandering.

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