June 5, 2023

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

End of the Road for I-95 Corridor Authority?

The NerveA legislative showdown is brewing over an S.C. Senate bill that would create another state agency whose purported goal is to improve economic conditions in historically poor, rural counties along Interstate 95.

The bill (S. 211) creating the “I-95 Corridor Authority,” sponsored by Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, was vetoed in June by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley. The Senate voted 30-10 to override the veto, though the House adjourned in July without taking up the veto.

Contacted last week, House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, told The Nerve that he doesn’t know when exactly the House will consider the veto, though he added, “I would anticipate it coming up in the first couple weeks of session.”

The bill is on the House calendar when the General Assembly reconvenes Tuesday. If the House overrides Haley’s veto, the I-95 Corridor Authority would be the second state agency created by lawmakers since 2010 to deal with rural economic development.

But in what could signal a change of the House’s collective mind on the pending bill, Bingham said he will vote to sustain Haley’s veto. Bingham was among 84 House members in May who voted in favor of it.

“Before, we had plenty of other issues we were trying to deal with,” he said. “It (the bill) stands alone now.”

Asked why he now opposes the bill, Bingham replied, “It just concerns me that we will have a separate authority set up to spend (taxpayer) money and grow government.”

At least one grassroots taxpayers’ group says it has been active in recent months in trying to persuade the 84 House members to reconsider their earlier vote.

“At a time when hardworking taxpayers are begging for relief from out-of-control government spending, what were our representatives thinking?” according to an “Action Alert” emailed last month by the Bluffton Tea Party Patriots.

The email described the proposed I-95 Corridor Authority as a “new, big government agency comprised of 19 mostly unelected bureaucrats with unlimited power and control over local governments, infrastructures, schools, taxes and hundreds of millions of dollars in public spending.”

Jane Kenny, co-organizer of the group, told The Nerve last week that as a result of her organization’s 10-week email, letter and phone campaign, at least a dozen House members who previously voted for the bill have said that they will sustain Haley’s veto.

“I’ll be surprised if the governor’s veto is not sustained,” Kenny said.

The S.C. Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of a quorum in each chamber to override a gubernatorial veto, the state Supreme Court ruled in August in a case involving the Fairfield County School Board.

The 30-10 vote in the Senate in June to override Haley’s veto of the I-95 Corridor Authority bill would have met the constitutional standard. Thirteen Republicans and 17 Democrats, including bill co-sponsors Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and John Land, D-Clarendon, voted in favor of the override.

Matthews, the bill’s main sponsor, told The Nerve last week that he doesn’t know if there are enough votes in the House to override Haley’s veto. But he said his bill, which was first introduced in 2010, is important.

“Most would agree that we need to do something with that I-95 corridor,” he said. “It’s falling behind the state, and this state is never going to make any progress until it brings that section of the state up.”

A state Board of Economic Advisors analysis of the bill identified 12 counties along the corridor: Allendale, Bamberg, Calhoun, Clarendon, Colleton, Dillon, Hampton, Jasper, Lee, Marion, Marlboro and Williamsburg counties.

Of those, only Jasper County recorded a November unemployment rate lower than the state average of 9.9 percent, according to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.

The other 11 counties were among 20 counties with the highest unemployment rates for that month, with Marion County again leading the state (17.3 percent), followed by Allendale County (16.9 percent) and Marlboro County (15.9 percent).

In her June 7 veto letter, Haley said while she understands the “unique challenges faced by the communities located within this area … (w)e must not carve out regions to prioritize over others.”

“I encourage local governments and local chambers of commerce to work together in the spirit of cooperation set forth in this bill, but this cooperation does not require a General Fund appropriation or a new state agency,” Haley wrote.

Despite language in the bill describing the proposed I-95 Corridor Authority as a “public body, politic and corporate, and agency of the State,” Matthews denied that the proposed authority would be a state agency, noting, “We’re simply coordinating counties, coordinating economic development on I-95.”

“There’s no state money in the bill; there’s no cost,” Matthews said.

The bill, however, says that the proposed authority “shall receive state funds as appropriated by the General Assembly.” It also could “solicit and accept private and public donations, grants, gifts and federal funds.”

In addition, the proposed authority could buy and sell land, file lawsuits, and enter into contracts “considered desirable in the furtherance of its purpose,” under the bill.

The authority would be governed by a 19-member board; most of the 13 voting members would be appointed by lawmakers in the affected areas, according to the bill.

Besides hiring its own employees, the I-95 Corridor Authority also could, under the bill, hire the S.C. Research Authority – a state-created and state-controlled technology and real estate company – to “execute the recommendations” of the “I-95 Corridor Human Needs Assessment.”

That study was prepared by a North Carolina research firm for Francis Marion University and S.C. State University, which, under the bill, would have one voting member each on the proposed authority’s board of directors. The report identifies six “fundamental needs in the region,” including “creating a shared vision for the region’s economic opportunities.”

If the I-95 Corridor Authority becomes a reality, it might have to compete for taxpayer dollars with the state Rural Infrastructure Authority, a rural economic development agency created by the General Assembly in 2010 under a bill authored by Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken.

The Nerve reported in September that the Rural Infrastructure Authority will have at least $28.8 million in available revenues this fiscal year, which started July 1, though nothing had been spent as of September because the authority had not been formally organized, according to Lindsey Kremlick, spokeswoman for the S.C. Budget and Control Board.

The authority would receive money primarily from the state tobacco settlement fund and another state fund known as the Rural Infrastructure Bank Trust Fund, Kremlick said then.

Kremlick told The Nerve last week that appointees have been named to Rural Infrastructure Authority’s governing board, but that it had not yet met. Clyburn could not be reached for comment last week.

Clyburn in May told The Nerve that the Rural Infrastructure Authority would finance primarily “smaller projects,”such as sidewalks or relatively small water-line projects in rural areas.

But the law allows the authority, which would be governed by a seven-member board, to pursue far bigger development projects using tax dollars.

Rural infrastructure projects as defined under the law can include the purchase of land, buildings and machinery; and the construction of buildings to “aid the development of trade, commerce, industry, agriculture, aquaculture and employment opportunities” in designated “distressed or least developed” counties.

And, like the proposed I-95 Corridor Authority, the Rural Infrastructure Authority could receive state and federal funding.

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

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