Politicians and Flags Go Hand in Hand

November 10, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveWhether viewed as an act of good citizenship or a crass attempt to win votes, handing out American and South Carolina flags has been a favorite pastime of state lawmakers for years.

In fact, S.C. House members over a 2.5-year period starting Jan. 1, 2008, collectively spent nearly $22,000 on flags, The Nerve revealed last month in a series on lawmaker salaries and expenses. Each House member can spend up to $250 per year on flags.

A proviso (70.13) in this fiscal year’s state budget also allows S.C. senators to spend the same annual amount on flags out of their postage and telephone accounts. In 2009, senators spent a total of $5,048 on flags, Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett recently told The Nerve.

The Nerve’s analysis of House records found that half of 150 current or former House members bought flags over the 2.5-year period, spending an average of $288.37 during the period. The total amounts during the period ranged from a low of $18 spent by Rep. Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg, to highs of $750 each by Reps. Don Bowen, R-Anderson; Marion Frye, R-Lexington; and Keith Kelly, R-Spartanburg.

The Nerve recently asked the top three House spenders for their views on the issue.

“I give flags to elementary schools, the high schools,” Frye said, noting that the flags typically are 3-by-5-feet or 4-by-6-feet for use on flagpoles. “It’s good for them. It’s good for us. … I think it serves multiple purposes.”

Frye said he also has provided U.S. or S.C. flags to fire departments, churches, clubs and individuals on their birthdays.

Often, old flags need to be replaced because they are worn, Frye said, adding that if he didn’t provide replacement flags, it would have to come out of local government agencies’ budgets.

“It comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket any way you look at it,” he said.

In a written response to The Nerve, Kelly said he has bought both U.S. and S.C. flags, mostly 3-by-5 feet in size.

“I gave them to Little League teams, Boy Scout troops and constituents on their 90th birthday,” he said.

Asked if he believes it’s fiscally prudent to spend tax dollars on flags given the fact that the Legislature has cut $1.6 billion out of the state’s ratified general fund budget over the past two fiscal years, Kelly replied simply, “I would do it again.”

Contacted recently by The Nerve, Bowen said he didn’t have time to discuss the issue, saying, “I’m up to my eyeballs in alligators with the people I represent in my district.”

Those lawmakers who don’t spend tax dollars on flags are more than likely paying for them out of their own pocket, said Rep. Kris Crawford, R-Florence, who counts himself among that group.

“I just bought $108 worth of flags,” he told The Nerve. “I spend money on them. It just doesn’t appear on my expense report.”

Outdoor flags vary in price, depending on the size and type of materials. On one flag store website, for example, 3-by-5-foot flags ranged in price from $12.95 (polyester) to $24.95 (cotton). Prices for 4-by-6 flags spanned from $21.95 (polyester) to $32.95 (cotton).

At those prices, lawmakers could purchase seven to 19 flags per year under the $250 annual cap.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.