COLUMBIA — House Republicans on Wednesday advanced a symbolic version of a measure that initially sought to nullify the federal health care law.
Meanwhile, Democrats pounced on a lawmaker's decision to use the state plane to fly in a conservative columnist to testify on behalf of the measure.
The measure, approved 4-2 along party lines, would put Republican lawmakers' already well-known opposition of the health care act into state law. It says no state employee could help enforce its provisions.
The vote was met by applause from a room packed with supporters.
But Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, said the bill is nothing more than political theater.
“It seems like they're doing something significant when it really has no significance at all,” he said. “It has zero impact.”
As introduced, the bill declared the Affordable Care Act null and void in South Carolina and made any federal employee attempting to enforce it a felon.
Recognizing that's not realistic, the panel's Republican members backtracked before the meeting. The amended measure contains no punishments. It just reaffirms the Legislature's right to pass legislation later.
“We can't go putting federal judges in prison,” said Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington.
The bill's advancement to the full Judiciary Committee was upstaged by criticism over how George Mason University economics professor Walter Williams arrived at the hearing.
Rep. Bill Chumley, the main sponsor, signed for Williams' flight Wednesday from the Washington area to speak before the subcommittee. The state planes' four legs – to a Manassas, Va., airport and back, to pick up Williams and return him – would have cost a paying passenger nearly $6,400, according to the state Aeronautics Commission's manifest and flight log.
State law allows statewide officers and legislators to use the two planes at no cost on a first-come, first-served basis, as long as the trips are official business. The lawmaker requesting the plane must sign the manifest certifying a trip is for official business.
Williams flew solo, riding the state's King Air 350 on the way down and King Air C90 on the way back.
Smith called it the height of hypocrisy to frivolously spend taxpayers' money to promote a tea party agenda. Williams, a syndicated columnist and radio commentator, is well known for advocating state measures attempting to nullify the federal law. As he walked into the hearing, the crowd got to its feet and erupted in applause. He spoke less than 30 minutes on a bill that the panel's Republicans said in advance they intended to pass, as long as the two people testifying wrapped it up quickly enough to allow a vote.
“During his testimony, Dr. Walter Williams espoused the abuses of government spending and intrusion while engaging in precisely the same behavior,” Smith said.
He called on Chumley to reimburse taxpayers for the flights.
Chumley, R-Woodriff, dismissed the flap, calling Williams' testimony official state business.
“We needed an expert witness – he's an expert witness,” he said. “We were glad to have him.”
Chumley said the House Ethics Committee staff signed off on the flight before he arranged it. That committee's members may end up determining whether the flight was appropriate. Smith said he's considering filing an ethics complaint.
House Ethics Committee Chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, said he had no knowledge of Chumley's request.
Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, took the Senate podium later Wednesday to decry Chumley's actions as an insult to taxpayers' intelligence. He said it represented poor judgment, no matter what the legislation was about.
“I find it appalling and inexcusable,” he said. “Imagine the chaos if all members decided to fly in experts for their bills.”
Attorney Kent Brown of Lexington, Ky., also came to testify on the bill. He acknowledged at the hearing that he'd received $7,500 to cover his trip expenses, though who paid that is unclear. Both Chumley and a GOP caucus spokesman said they didn't know.
Brown drove to South Carolina after speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington, Chumley said.
Gov. Nikki Haley reimbursed the state about $10,000 last fall for using state planes to attend news conferences and bill signings, after The Associated Press informed her of a rule in the budget against that. Haley's spokesman Rob Godfrey said her office was unaware legislators inserted the clause in 2011 which specifies that bill signings, press conferences and political functions don't count as official business.
During the trips, she ceremoniously signed five laws and promoted her ethics reform and tax-cutting plans.
On Wednesday, Haley declined to weigh in on Williams' flight.
“The only state plane usage we focus on is the governor's, and she uses the plane strictly for state business and economic development,” Godfrey said.