Saturday, March 06, 2021

GOP leader wants to sell state planes used by South Carolina lawmakers and industry recruiters

WEST COLUMBIA, South Carolina — The S.C. Senate’s GOP leader wants to sell a pair of airplanes used by South Carolina officials, ending what he calls an abuse of taxpayers’ money.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, announced March 5 his proposal to sell off the state’s twin-engine 1983 King Air C90 and 1990 King Air 350, dubbed “Palmetto 1” and “Palmetto 2,” most frequently used by the governor but also used for business and sports recruiting.

This week, for example, Gov. Henry McMaster flew to Myrtle Beach and Darlington to visit COVID-19 mass vaccination clinics.

“We’ve seen evidence of lawmakers using these planes for vacations, to go to conferences that they’ve described as official business, that I don’t think many South Carolinians would consider to be official state business,” Massey said in announcing legislation he’ll file March 9 to offload the airplanes.

“The spirit of the law is to provide for the limited use of state-owned aircraft to do the business and further interests of the state,” Massey’s resolution states. “Owning aircraft is not a core function of government and is ripe for abuse at the taxpayer’s expense.”

Selling the aircraft is backed by state House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford of Columbia — because, he said, the fleet desperately needs an upgrade.

“We have Boeing in this state. We should have a jet,” Rutherford told The Post and Courier. “You cannot do economic development in this state by walking.”

Massey said he’s open to alternatives, pointing to the need for industrial recruitment and travel requirements for governors, but suggested lawmakers look into chartered flights or a reimbursement system for commercial flight.

“I understand the governor needs to travel, I’m willing to listen to whatever ideas people have, but what I’m not willing to do is continue to allow these state assets to be misused and taxpayer dollars be wasted,” Massey said.

Statewide officers and legislators can use the state planes at no cost to them on a first-come, first-served basis, as long as the trips are official business. Beyond McMaster, others recently on board include state Treasurer Curtis Loftis, state Ports Authority president Jim Newsome, and University of South Carolina president Bob Caslen.

They were among 27 times the planes were used between Jan. 1, 2020, and Feb. 1 of this year, according to flight logs maintained by the state Aeronautics Commission. In all, the flights cost taxpayers $85,000.

Manifests from 2020 show the planes were used for a myriad of reasons:

• On Jan. 16, state Ports Authority president Jim Newsome flew from Mount Pleasant to Greenville, where he was given an award during a South Carolina Manufacturers Association banquet.

• On Jan. 28, University of South Carolina president Bob Caslen and other officials flew to Hilton Head Island to meet with Apple executives about a partnership with USC Greenville Medical School.

• On Feb. 22, several Clemson football coaches, including former NFL quarterback and now team offensive analyst J.P. Losman, traveled to Myrtle Beach for a coaches clinic.

• On May 12, state Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, took a flight to Brunswick, Ga., hometown of Ahmaud Arbery to take part in a press conference.

• On July 1, state Attorney General Alan Wilson went to Manassas, Va., to meet with former U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette.

• On Aug. 12, Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette traveled to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services leaders.

• On Nov. 12, the state Department of Corrections used a plane to extradite an inmate from Arkansas.

• And on Oct. 1, a legislative delegation, including state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, journeyed to Mount Pleasant for a meeting regarding potential closure of the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot.

“They’re in place to facilitate us being legislators and taking care of the state’s business,” King, who returned to South Carolina with a renewed push for adoption of a hate crimes bill, said. “One thing I know about the other legislators that have been on there, they have made sure they’ve done things ethically and not against the laws of South Carolina.”

McMaster said he’s willing to consider getting rid of the planes. He’s asked the state Department of Administration to analyze the costs and benefits of keeping versus selling, not only the two state planes, but those owned by public colleges, too, updating a 2014 study, said his spokesman Brian Symmes.

Both the University of South Carolina and Clemson have two planes.

Some larger states have already gotten rid of their subsidized aircraft. In 2019, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, sold his government’s plane for $1.2 million — following through on a campaign promise to do so. And, in December, Montana’s multi-millionaire Gov. Greg Gianforte bought a personal airplane that he uses for all state business.

Maintained by the state’s Aeronautics Commission in West Columbia, the C90 costs $1,000 an hour to operate while the newer King Air 350 is $1,500. According to the commission, a round-trip flight from its headquarters to the Washington/Dulles airport is $4,750 for up to nine passengers. It costs $1,500 for officials to take the 45-minute flight from West Columbia to Myrtle Beach on the six-seater C90.

Massey said it’s an unnecessary perk for politicians, and the best way to end abuse is to cut off their access completely.

Flights authorized by legislators, the governor and other constitutional officers are absorbed as part of the agency’s budget. Agencies and public colleges also can use the planes for official business, but they must pay by the hour. The agency is barred from making a profit on the per-hour cost.

Massey said his legislation was prompted by a March 4 report in The State newspaper that said state House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, has flown on the planes six times with his then-girlfriend, Megan Pinckney, since 2013.

The couple got married in December.

But he’s far from the only legislator to use the planes.

And other politicians have come under fire in the past.

“This isn’t about Todd Rutherford. There’s a whole lot of people who have used those planes and, most of the time, they’re for legitimate purposes,” Massey said.

“But it doesn’t take a whole lot of abuse of taxpayer-funded planes like this to cause a problem for everybody else.”

Rutherford, who is on the House Ethics Committee, said many lawmakers have constituents in rural parts of the state, or are asked to take part in events that could take them out-of-pocket for hours if forced to drive. He also said the antiquated condition of South Carolina’s planes don’t make them an attractive option.

“Those planes are so old and decrepit you don’t want to get on them unless you have to. They’re like my 1974 Volkswagen,” he said. “In South Carolina, it is very difficult to get around if you’re actually going to do your job in multiple places.”

In 2013, Democrats accused then-Gov. Nikki Haley of misusing the state’s planes by taking her campaign-paid videographer with her on flights around South Carolina the year before. She dismissed the criticism, and an attorney with the state Ethics Commission agreed with her, saying he can fly at the governor’s invitation.

A year earlier, Haley repaid about $10,000 for using state planes to attend news conferences and bill signings after being told about a prohibition that legislators quietly inserted into the state budget, partly because they were weary of watching her fly around the state to hold events bashing them.

Also in 2013, the House Ethics Committee dismissed allegations that state Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Woodruff, wrongly used the planes to shuttle a conservative commentator from Washington, D.C., to testify on a bill. A clause in the state budget specifies that transportation to and from legislative meetings does not qualify as official business. But violating that requires the legislator to know it was wrong and to benefit economically, the committee found.

Palmetto 1 also landed in Tampa for the 1984 Super Bowl, ferrying then state Sen. Jack Lindsay, a Marlboro County Democrat, to the game.

Amid the controversies in 2013, senators voted to sell the planes, saying it would end the recurring accusations of their misuse by government officials. The 26-14 vote inserted the proposal into the Senate’s budget plan, but the House took it out.


  1. I would think hiring a charter or air taxi would be cheaper. No overhead,no maintenence, no salaries, no capital investment. Airlines would be the wise choice.

    1. When you're repeatedly covering an area within a 300-mile radius, it's probably more efficient to have your own fleet. Not to mention the fact that it creates business for local GA fields.

  2. At $3,27700 per hour they need to fly more to bring the cost per hour down.