Delegation influence reaches state airports
By now, if you’ve been following the Policy Council’s latest research, it should come as no surprise to hear that legislative delegations (the group of state lawmakers representing a particular county) play an oversized role in filling important state and local positions, which has an effect on everything from education policy to the roads we drive on.
But this power extends far beyond the more predictable functions of government. Delegations also control appointments to various airport governing boards, some of which have the power to issue millions in debt backed by local taxpayers.
Controlling appointments to regional airport boards
South Carolina’s major airports are governed by special public bodies called airport commissions or authorities, depending on the region. According to state law, these entities have the legal authority to plan, construct, operate and even police all the public airports that fall within their jurisdiction.
While running a local airport may seem like a local responsibility, a majority of appointments on the state’s biggest airport governing boards are controlled by legislative delegations – not county officials.
Here’s a quick breakdown:
- 10 of 12 members on the Richland-Lexington Airport Commission are appointed directly by the Richland and Lexington County Delegations (each get five appointments)
- All 6 members on the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport Commission are *technically* appointed by the governor, but only after being nominated by their county delegation (each county delegation, Greenville and Spartanburg, gets three nominations). This rule is frequently used in state law to preserve legislative power while promoting the illusion of executive control
- 6 of 11 members on the Charleston County Aviation Authority are similarly appointed by the governor after first being nominated by the county delegation (The House and Senate delegations representing Charleston County each nominate three members)
Unsurprisingly, the decision to put legislative delegations in charge of these boards has not always produced ideal results. Take for example the case of retired S.C. Senator Paul Campbell, who was allowed to serve as CEO of the Charleston County Aviation Authority (CCAA) for seven years while simultaneously working as a state lawmaker, despite concerns about dual-office holding. Also consider that, as a former member of the Charleston County Legislative Delegation, Campbell played a role in the appointing board members to the CCAA, whose job it is to hire the CEO (click here to read more about Campbell’s history as CEO).
What do these boards actually do?
Generally speaking, state law gives these entities near total control of public airport operations that fall within their district (within the bounds of federal law). On a practical basis, these responsibilities include:
- Maintaining airport runways, terminals, access roads, and utilities;
- Managing airport advertising;
- Providing space for and awarding contracts to restaurants, gift shops and other concessions;
- Hiring airport executive leadership and staff; and
- Approving airport expansion projects (state law gives airport commissions/authorities the power of eminent domain)
Critically, airport governing boards also have the authority to issue millions in bonds paid for by local taxpayers.
According to state law, a number of regional airport districts can issue local general obligation bonds to pay for airport maintenance, construction, expansion and more. This debt would be repaid using a new property tax triggered on every taxpayer within the airport district (which can span multiple counties) and would remain in effect until the principal and interest debt were paid. Before such bonds can be issued, the deal would have to be approved by the legislative delegations representing the counties within the airport district.
The S.C. Aeronautics Commission and state-owned planes
Delegations representing the state’s seven congressional district each elect a member to serve on the S.C. Aeronautics Commission, while the governor appoints one member to represent the state at-large.
While regional authorities are primarily responsible for the airports within their districts, the commission is South Carolina’s central authority on public use airports (although the two often work together). A primary responsibility of the commission is maintaining the state aviation plan, which includes a lengthy inventory of relevant aviation assets and is used to shape the airport system as a whole. It also must approve the state purchase of any aeronautic assets.
According to state law, the commission is technically part of the S.C. Department of Commerce, and is consequently tasked with promoting economic development. Part of this responsibility includes administering grants to airports for a variety of capital improvement projects.
Finally, the commission is responsible for maintaining flights logs for the state’s two publicly owned planes – which are regularly misused by public officials. While the planes can only be used for “official state business”, that definition has been stretched by lawmakers and others to include regular trips to conferences, award ceremonies and even for recruiting college athletes (read more here). According to the Post and Courier, the state’s more expensive plane costs $1,500 per hour to operate.
One bill Introduced earlier this year would sell both state-owned aircraft, however it has yet to advance past committee process (but could still become law next year).
Legislative delegations have far too much control over South Carolina government, and this influence raises the likelihood that certain public assets will end up being used to the benefit of public officials, not taxpayers. Worse, much of this power is largely invisible to your average citizen, largely by design, as the laws upholding this system are both decentralized and convoluted.
Importantly, lawmakers have the power to fix this mess, and short of total reform, could give up their majority control over airport governing boards, improve the state’s ethics laws, or at a bare minimum, require more transparency for official delegation business.