By RICK BRUNDRETT
Like the 46-member S.C. Senate, the 124-member S.C. House apparently can’t resist spending hundreds of millions in state surplus dollars – mainly on lawmakers’ favored local projects.
Bolstered by a rosy prediction last week by official revenue forecasters that the state’s general fund surplus for this fiscal year was expected to grow by about $564 million, House members on the same day designated nearly $400 million in earmarks primarily for projects in their respective legislative districts.
The Nerve’s review of the House’s earmark list found that 108 House members – 73 Republicans and 35 Democrats – collectively made 350 requests totaling $398.7 million. The list was posted last Thursday on the Legislature’s website several hours after The Nerve submitted a formal request to the House for the document under the state’s open-records law.
House members on May 9 approved their amended version of a $41 billion total state budget for fiscal 2023-24, which starts July 1, including earmarks that would be covered out of $2 billion in actual and projected surplus funds.
In an official release on May 9, the S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office estimated that lawmakers will have an additional total $4.34 billion in recurring and nonrecurring state revenues to appropriate for next fiscal year.
Before the Legislature convened last week, The Nerve revealed, based on an earmark list obtained under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, that 43 senators collectively made 172 earmark requests totaling $314.4 million – most of which would be covered with state surplus funds – when it passed its state budget version last month.
The Senate’s earmark list has not been posted on the Legislature’s website – and Senate rules don’t require it.
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.
The Nerve for years has reported about the lack of transparency and public input on earmarks. The South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – last 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, including posting earmark requests on the Legislature’s website within 24 hours of filing, as The Nerve reported then. Harris was among a small group of House members who requested no earmarks for next fiscal year, according to the House’s earmark list.
Harris’ bill has remained stuck in the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville. All but one of the 25 committee members, including Bannister, sponsored or co-sponsored at least one earmark, The Nerve’s latest review found.
The Nerve’s analysis found that Republican House Speaker Murrell Smith – that chamber’s top officer – sponsored or co-sponsored the collective most-expensive earmark requests – 11 earmarks totaling nearly $40 million – mainly for local projects in his home county of Sumter, including a $15 million request for the Shaw Sumter Military Museum.
The Nerve on Monday submitted written questions to Bannister and Smith through his spokesperson. No response was received from either lawyer-legislator by publication of this story.
Smith was asked why his own earmark list was far more pricey compared to most other House members’ requests. Bannister was asked when exactly House members first started submitting requests to his committee; in last week’s Nerve story, House Clerk Charles Reid said he had “no document(s) responsive” to The Nerve’s request for a House earmark list.
The Nerve also asked Smith and Bannister about why the approximately $400 million in requested House earmarks shouldn’t be refunded to taxpayers. That amount works out to be about $75 for every man, woman and child in South Carolina; the total requested Senate earmarks equate to about $60 for every S.C. resident, as The Nerve reported last week.
The proposed Senate and House earmarks are in addition to approximately $1.3 billion in state surplus funds reserved for incentives to bring a Scout Motors electric-vehicle plant near Columbia. That amount equates to about $240 for every resident in the state.
The Policy Council has called on lawmakers to use state surplus dollars to accelerate tax relief for South Carolinians.
The Nerve’s latest review found that the 350 House earmark requests range from $6,000 to $25 million, with 77 requests of at least $1 million. As with the Senate’s earmark list, the House’s list contains many vaguely worded project descriptions.
Following are the top-12 House earmark requests of at least $10 million, along with each funding sponsor, according to the earmark list:
*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: Rep. Bruce Bannister.
*Spartanburg Downtown Infrastructure: $20 million. Sponsor: Rep. Max Hyde, R-Spartanburg.
*The Peace Center: $17.5 million. Sponsor: Rep. Chandra Dillard, D-Greenville.
*Shaw Sumter Military Museum: $15 million. Sponsor: Rep. Murrell Smith.
*Town of Seneca – Downtown Revitalization: $12 million. Sponsor: Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee.
*Lexington Conference Center: $10 million. Sponsors: Reps. Paula Calhoon, R-Lexington; Chris Wooten, R-Lexington.
*Murrells Inlet Dredging: $10 million. Sponsor: Rep. Lee Hewitt, R-Georgetown.
*Pickens County – Highway 183: $10 million. Sponsors: Reps. David Hiott, R-Pickens; Neal Collins, R-Pickens.
*Saluda Grade Rail Trail: $10 million. Sponsor: Rep. Max Hyde.
*Florence County – Poyner Building Renovation: $10 million. Sponsor: Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence.
*City of Columbia – Assembly St. Railroad: $10 million. Sponsor: Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland.
As with the Senate earmark list, the single-largest number of proposed House requests would be funneled through the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, budget records show.
The single most-expensive earmark – $55 million – on the Senate’s list also was retained in the House’s latest budget version. That amount, described in budget records as only “Publicly Owned Aeronautics Infrastructure – New and Existing Business,” 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 an April 21 Post and Courier news story.
The Nerve earlier this month asked the S.C. Department of Commerce – the agency through which the $55 million would flow – for details related to the Senate’s earmark request, but no records were provided then. The Nerve has since submitted a formal request for those records under the state’s open-records law.
In a rare move, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster last week ordered the Legislature to return in a special session to work on the state budget and several other matters. The regular legislative session ended last Thursday; lawmakers are back in Columbia this week.
Under the S.C. Constitution, the Legislature is required to pass an annual state budget. A joint conference committee made up of Reps. Bannister; Bill Herbkersman, R-Beaufort; and David Weeks, D-Sumter; and Sens. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, who is the Senate Finance Committee chairman; Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington; and Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, who is the Senate president, was appointed to work out differences between the chambers’ budget versions.
The six conference committee members each sponsored or co-sponsored multiple earmarks, The Nerve’s reviews found.
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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