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SC Senate leader: Sell state planes if aren’t used right

March 5, 2021 GMT
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South Carolina Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, talks about his proposal to sell two state-owned airplanes on Friday, March 5, 2021, in West Columbia, S.C. Massey said he has never been on the state plane and thinks selling them is the only way to prevent lawmakers from using them for improper trips. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
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South Carolina Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, talks about his proposal to sell two state-owned airplanes on Friday, March 5, 2021, in West Columbia, S.C. Massey said he has never been on the state plane and thinks selling them is the only way to prevent lawmakers from using them for improper trips. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The leader of Republicans in the South Carolina Senate wants to sell two state-owned airplanes that lawmakers and government officials can use as long as they promise it’s for official business.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said Friday he will introduce a proposal next week after reading a story by The State newspaper detailing how lawmakers have used the state plane for trips he called taxpayer funded “vacation trips.”

“The lack of faith that results from this type of use, to me, we’re better off if we just get rid of the things,” said Massey, a Republican from Edgefield.

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An investigation by The State newspaper and The Island Packet of Hilton Head found House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford traveled on the state plane to conferences at luxury resorts with his then-girlfriend, while taxpayers picked up the tab for their flights.

Once there, the Columbia Democrat sometimes spent his campaign donations to cover expenses, even though organizers already provided food and lodging, the newspapers found.

Rutherford said there is nothing illegal or unethical with his actions, though at least four legal and ethics experts told the newspaper they disputed the House minority leader’s interpretation of the law, saying that officials and their invitees shall use the plane only for official business.

Lawmakers can use the state plane for official business. What that means is often left to their own interpretation. In 2013, a Republican legislator sent the state plane to Virginia to pick up an economist to testify about a bill that would have nullified the health care law backed by former President Barack Obama.

The rules are a little more defined for governors. Former Gov. Mark Sanford paid the largest ethics fine in state history — nearly $75,000 — in part for using the state plane to go to his children’s sporting events, hair and dentist appointments, political party gatherings and a birthday party for a campaign donor.

Lawmakers tightened the plane rules for the governor after that and former Gov. Nikki Haley paid back more than $9,500 to the state when she used the plane to go to bill signings, press conferences and to rallies supporting her tax reform plans.

In May 2013, the state Senate voted to sell the state planes after the issues with Haley and lawmakers. Massey wasn’t there that day, but said he backed the idea. The House did not vote on it and the proposal died.

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“That worked for a while. and then the spotlight faded,” Massey said.

Massey said his idea is a starting point and he will listen to proposals that might instead set a strict limit on use of the plane, but with a leery ear.

“My concern about that is we’ve tried that. We’ve tried it multiple times. And people always figuring out a way to get around the rules,” Massey said.

Massey, who said he has never flown on the state plane and couldn’t identify them if they rolled down the tarmac several hundred yards from where he spoke at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport, said there are plenty of other options for the governor, lawmakers and state employees to get places.

“There are commercial opportunities. There are charter opportunities. We can get NetJets cards. We have motor vehicles,” Massey said.

Massey has spent much of his 13 years in the Senate fighting for transparency and accountability. In past years, he clashed with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman having too much power by also being the President pro tem of the Senate.

When voters decided the Senate president and not the lieutenant governor should preside over the chamber in 2018, Massey got senators to agree the president couldn’t also be chair of a committee.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.