COLUMBIA — South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has repaid about $10,000 for using state planes to attend news conferences and bill-signings, after The Associated Press informed her of a rule against that.
Haley’s spokesman said her office was unaware legislators put a clause in the budget last year that added the restrictions. She returned $9,590 on Friday to the state Aeronautics Commission, which operates the state’s two taxpayer-funded planes. The reimbursement covers flights taken across the state over seven days since last July.
During the trips, she ceremoniously signed five laws, including those creating the state Medal of Valor and drawing the new 7th Congressional District anchored in Horry County. Three days of flights involved her promoting her ethics reform and tax-cut plans.
Spokesman Rob Godfrey called the trips “entirely staff oversight.”
“In none of those cases did the governor use the state plane for anything unrelated to her official state duties, and she never has,” he said.
Statewide officers and legislators can use the planes at no cost to them on a first-come, first-served basis, as long as the trips are official business.
However, a rule first inserted into the 2011-12 budget, and kept in this year’s, specifies that bill-signings, press conferences and political functions don’t count as official business.
The clause says the flights are ethics violations.
Haley said the purpose of her fly-around stops are to educate people on what she’s pushing and why. She also said it makes sense to hold ceremonial bill-signings in places that recognize those who pushed for the measure.
“This takes away my ability to get close to the people,” she said. “When you look at time is money, now it will take me three hours to get to Myrtle Beach or Hilton Head, and I won’t be able to hit as many spots as I do. I want to get the most out of my day. It calls into question, what do you want the role of your governor to be?”
The reimbursement represents a quarter of her state plane usage since she took office in January 2011.
According to flight logs and manifests, she was the most frequent flier among elected officials with free access to the planes, taking flights over 30 days, at a cost to the aeronautics agency of $39,590.
Legislators and statewide politicians other than the governor have taken a combined $70,380 worth of flights since January 2011.
By contrast, former Gov. Mark Sanford took $83,800 worth of flights over his last two years in office.
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: $850 for the King Air C90 and $1,250 for the King Air 350. The agency is barred from making a profit on the per-hour cost.
Rep. Boyd Brown, D-Winnsboro, is a frequent critic of the Republican governor, but he said he can’t fault her for using state planes.
“I didn’t know that proviso was in there,” Brown said.
He took the plane to Chicago in July to meet with a biofuel company executive about locating in his district — a possibility he said is still in the works. He defends legislative use of state planes as a way to promote South Carolina, noting the state’s come a long way since the rampant abuses decades ago.
Former Democratic Sen. John Lindsay famously took a state plane to the Super Bowl in 1984.
In those days, the state owned 11 aircraft and employed 17 pilots. The agency now has one full-time and five contract pilots, said agency director Paul Werts.
Senators who sponsored the rule on plane usage for press conferences and bill signings say the issue predates Haley.
In 2010, Sanford agreed to pay $74,000 in ethics fines, the largest in state history, to resolve dozens of travel-related ethics charges, including personal use of state planes. He was known for bashing legislators in news conferences across the state.
“The intent of the plane is not to be used for political purposes but for the business of the state,” said Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, a co-sponsor of the budget clause. “We had seen some of our leaders spending more time trying to be in front of the camera than using it for state business. When politicians are being politicians, they ought to use their own campaign funds. They ought not to politic on the state’s dollar.”
Sheheen, who lost to Haley in 2010, said the co-sponsors believed the law needed to be very specific on what is considered official business.
Sen. Jake Knotts, R-West Columbia, said he believes officials should use the planes only to fly outside the state, for economic development or taking a group to Washington to meet with federal officials, for example. South Carolina is a small enough state that any town is within a two-to-three hours’ drive from Columbia, he said.
“You can operate a car a lot cheaper than a plane,” said Knotts, who said he co-sponsored the clause to save taxpayers money.
Besides, he said, politicians can use email and social media these days to quickly get their message statewide.