February 29, 2024

The Nerve Archive

Where Government Gets Exposed

Politicians Stretch Legitimate Uses of State Plane


state plane

What counts as ‘official state business’?

Most taxpayers would agree that use of a state-owned aircraft should only be for trips of high importance to the governor. Yet records reveal that South Carolina’s state plane is routinely used by mid-level state personnel for arguably non-essential purposes.

The South Carolina Aeronautics Commission posts monthly flight logs and bimonthly flight manifests that list not only who has been using the state aircraft, but where they went, the purpose of their flight, and the total cost, in addition to general flight information.

As one might expect, the governor is by far the most common user of the state plane. The necessity of flying from Columbia to Charleston to attend the Volvo Car Open may be debated, but that use of the plane would strike most readers as at least defensible.

Other examples of state expenditures are less justifiable.

The last section of each flight manifest is a signed declaration that the trip being undertaken is for the official business of the state of South Carolina, followed by a short description of the trip itself, and its purpose.  Most trips have at least some cursory explanation for the trip, though the President of Clemson University, James Clements, typically enters nothing in this section to describe short jaunts from Columbia to Aiken.

Two trips made by the Adjutant General, for example, underscore how broadly the concept of “official state business” has become in recent years. It now seems to encompass almost any conceivable action by a public official. On April 27 and 28 of 2016, Julian Milligan flew first from Columbia to Miami to pick up the state’s Adjutant General Robert Livingston, then from Miami to Columbia where they picked up more passengers, and then to Columbus, Indiana.  All told, the airfare for these trips totals more than $8,200.

Even stranger, there is no listing for why this series of flights was undertaken, as that section of the flight manifest is left blank.

The Adjutant General’s office also took a trip to Maryland to attend a promotion ceremony at a total cost of $4,340. The stated reason for the trip: “Officially attend Major General Robert Williams’ promotion to Lieutenant General.” Left unexplained is why taxpayers should pay for state employees to attend a promotion ceremony.

Use of the state plane by the Adjutant General is at least slightly more palatable than state legislators using the state plane at public expense for in- and out-of-state travel, however.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is an incredibly influential organization that shapes and molds the relationship between the United States and Israel. Given the organization’s national and international focus, it’s not obvious why Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Richland) elected to use the state plane to go to an AIPAC event in Atlanta, and listed the trip as official state business on the flight manifest.

His explanation reads, in full: “AIPAC Southeast Outreach event.” Total cost: $2,309.

Rep. Harold Mitchell’s (D-Spartanburg) trip to Florida in May raises similar questions. At a travel cost of $4,235, Mitchell flew from Spartanburg to Orlando and back. The stated purpose: “National Black Caucus of State Legislators, Orlando Florida” – a description that fails to explain why Mitchell’s attendance should be construed as official state business.

The view almost seems to be: If an elected official is on the plane, it must be official state business. Until we have a narrower definition of that term, expect politicians to fly to just about anything at taxpayer expense.

Duncan Taylor is a policy analyst at the South Carolina Policy Council

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