By RICK BRUNDRETT
When it came to reining in lawmakers’ spending on their favored local projects for the upcoming fiscal year, Gov. Henry McMaster used a veto butter knife on earmarks totaling more than $709 million.
In his annual written veto message released Tuesday, McMaster vetoed just six out of 515 state budget earmarks approved by lawmakers for the fiscal 2023-24 fiscal year that starts July 1. The six projects totaled $1.5 million – a fraction of 1 percent of the overall $709.4 million in earmarks, The Nerve found in a review of House and Senate earmark lists overwhelmingly approved last week by the Legislature.
The $709.4 million equates to about $134 for every man, woman and child in South Carolina. The vast majority of the earmarks would be covered out of an approximately $2 billion pot of actual and projected state surplus funds.
“Finally, I applaud the General Assembly for passing the most transparent and accountable budget in modern times,” the Republican McMaster said in his veto message.
Touting his “ongoing cooperation, communication, and collaboration” with the Republican-controlled, 170-member Legislature, McMaster in his veto message provided four examples of what he described as “deliberative and meritorious” earmark appropriations.
Under Senate and House rules, earmarks are special funding requests by lawmakers for specific projects or programs that didn’t originate with a written agency budget request or weren’t included in the prior fiscal year’s state appropriations. Senators and House members over the years routinely have sponsored earmarks for their pet projects in their home districts – typically with few details revealed publicly in advance, as The Nerve has reported.
But this year, lawmakers put earmark spending on steroids. The Nerve last month revealed that senators collectively made 172 earmark requests totaling $314.4 million, while House members as a group proposed 350 earmarks totaling $398.7 million.
The Nerve’s latest review found that lawmakers who made up a six-member joint conference committee that worked out differences between the House and Senate budget versions made relatively few changes to the chambers’ earmark lists, approving 342 House earmarks totaling more than $396.5 million and 173 Senate earmarks totaling about $312.9 million.
The chambers’ earmarks ranged from $6,000 to $55 million. The median earmark – the halfway point on the overall list – was about $432,000.
Lawmakers last week approved a fiscal 2023-24 state budget totaling $41 billion, which includes state, federal and “other” funds. Given McMaster’s relatively light veto touch, they likely won’t immediately reconvene to decide whether to override his total 11 vetoes, several of which didn’t involve specific funding requests.
Besides the $709.4 million in earmark projects, lawmakers this year also set aside $1.29 billion in actual and projected state surplus funds to bring a Scout Motors electric-vehicle plant to Richland County, which works out to approximately $240 for every S.C. resident, as The Nerve revealed last month along with other details of the taxpayer-backed incentives agreements for the Volkswagen company.
McMaster in his veto message described the project as a “great victory for our state,” predicting it will “bring opportunity and prosperity to the region for generations to come.”
The South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – in April called on lawmakers to accelerate tax relief to South Carolinians with state surplus funds.
Power broker spending
The Nerve’s latest review found that Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, who is the former Senate president and current chairman of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee, sponsored or co-sponsored 14 earmarks totaling $45.7 million.
That amount included $20 million for “York County Water and Sewer – Blue Granite Acquisition Costs,” and $10 million for “Spartanburg Downtown Development Infrastructure,” according to the Senate earmark list. Spartanburg officials revealed publicly last month that the city had accumulated $34 million in state earmarks over the last three years for downtown development projects tied to a proposed minor league baseball stadium, according to a Post and Courier story.
Peeler, whose legislative district includes parts of York and Spartanburg counties, was one of three senators on the joint legislative committee that worked out differences between the Senate and House versions of the fiscal 2023-24 state budget. The other two Senate members were Senate President Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee; and Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, who is the former Senate minority leader.
Alexander sponsored five earmarks totaling $12.4 million, including $5.5 million for the “City of Walhalla Community Center” and $5 million for the “City of Westminster Recreation Facility,” according to the Senate earmark list. Setzler was the sole sponsor of four requests totaling $8.2 million, including $7 million for a riverwalk expansion project in the city of West Columbia, The Nerve’s review found.
On the House side, Speaker Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, sponsored or co-sponsored 11 earmark requests for his home district totaling $39.9 million, including $15 million for the Shaw Sumter Military Museum and a collective $13.8 million for various park projects.
The original three House members on the state budget conference committee were Reps. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, who is chairman of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee; Bill Herbkersman, R-Beaufort; and David Weeks, D-Sumter, who was later replaced by Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, who is the House minority leader.
Bannister was the sole sponsor of a $20 million earmark for “Public Space Upgrades & Safety Improvements” in the city of Greenville, and a $1 million funding request for the “Cancer Survivors Park Alliance,” plus co-sponsored a $4 million earmark for a “multi-purpose stadium project” in the city of Mauldin, according to the House earmark list.
Rutherford was the sole sponsor of seven earmarks totaling $19.3 million, including $10 million to be used for a project aimed at eliminating certain railroad grade crossings in the city of Columbia; he also co-sponsored three other earmarks totaling $3.2 million, The Nerve’s review found.
Following are the 10 most-expensive House and Senate earmarks, as well as each funding sponsor, as described in the chambers’ earmark lists:
* Publicly Owned Aeronautics Infrastructure – New and Existing Business: $55 million. Sponsors: Senate Finance Natural Resources and Economic Development Budget Subcommittee, chaired by Setzler. That amount would be used to refurbish buildings owned by the South Carolina Technology and Aviation Center, a public entity in Greenville County, and leased to aerospace giant Lockheed Martin for its F-16 production and maintenance program at the site, according to S.C. Department of Commerce records provided recently to The Nerve under the state’s open-records law.
*Elevate SC-22 Over the Waccamaw River: $30 million. Sponsors: Sens. Luke Rankin, R-Horry; Greg Hembree, R-Horry; Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown; and Kent Williams, D-Marion.
*Town of Fort Mill – Downtown Economic Development: $25 million. Sponsor: Rep. Raye Felder, R-York.
*City of Greenville – Public Space Upgrades & Safety Improvements: $20 million. Sponsor: Bannister.
*Spartanburg Downtown Infrastructure: $20 million. Sponsor: Rep. Max Hyde, R-Spartanburg.
*York County Water and Sewer – Blue Granite Acquisition Costs: $20 million. Sponsors: Peeler and Sen. Wes Climer, R-York.
*The Peace Center: $17.5 million. Sponsor: Rep. Chandra Dillard, D-Greenville.
*Shaw Sumter Military Museum: $15 million. Sponsor: House Speaker Smith.
*South Carolina Quantum Association Curriculum Development and Use Study: $15 million. Sponsor: Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland.
*Piedmont Technical College – Saluda Advanced Manufacturing Center and New Campus: $14.3 million. Sponsor: Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, who is the Senate majority leader. McMaster in his veto message praised the earmark, calling it an “example of how a strategic investment can transform a rural community.”
In contrast, McMaster last year vetoed a $25 million funding request by Harpootlian for the Quantum Association project, contending then that the proposed “supercomputer” would be owned and operated by a “yet-to-be-created” nonprofit, and that the budget proviso authorizing the project would create a “dangerous precedent.”
Details dribbled out
In his latest veto message, McMaster claimed that the Legislature’s leadership “now provides for not only the public disclosure of the sponsors and recipients of earmarked appropriations, but they also disclose the activity, function, or project for which the earmark is intended, the public purpose served, the budget, a description of community support, and details on the identity and function of the recipient organization.”
Yet as The Nerve previously reported, the House posted its initial earmark list – with scant details – on the Legislature’s website on May 11, just several hours after The Nerve made a formal request for the list under the state’s open-records law. Background records on those earmarks weren’t published on the website until after the budget conference committee report was adopted this month – leaving little opportunity for most taxpayers to review details of the proposals in advance.
The Senate last month provided its original earmark list – with few specifics – to The Nerve under the Freedom of Information Act but did not publish it on the Legislature’s website.
At The Nerve’s written request, Senate Clerk Jeff Gossett on Friday provided the budget conference committee’s approved earmark list, though it was posted later on the Legislature’s website and isn’t specified in other online budget records. He said the conference list was not amended by the full Legislature in passing the state budget last week.
The Policy Council in December published recommendations to improve transparency in S.C. government, including posting earmark requests on the Legislature’s website within 24 hours of the request, noting there is a “significant delay between when earmarks are requested and posted online, and the forms lack important details.”
State Rep. Rob Harris, R-Spartanburg, in February introduced a government-transparency bill mirroring the Policy Council’s recommendations, though the bill hasn’t moved out of the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Bannister.
Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-394-8273 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.
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