House members push pet projects through taxpayer-funded earmarks
By RICK BRUNDRETT
S.C. Reps. Bruce Bannister and Dwight Loftis want $5 million in state funding to help build a convention center in downtown Greenville that Bannister says would house a large art collection that had been displayed at the private Bob Jones University.
Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, who has donated to the nonprofit South Carolina Aquarium, says he wants $1.5 million in state money to move power generating equipment at the Charleston aquarium to higher ground. He also is asking for $2.5 million in state funding for unspecified “revitalization and maintenance efforts at statewide tourism destinations,” according to a House document.
Rep. Chip Huggins says he wants $1.5 million in state tax dollars to match a federal grant to extend the Three Rivers Greenway trail area in Richland and Lexington counties, plus another $250,000 in state funding for the nonprofit Special Olympics South Carolina.
Rep. Kirkman Finlay, who has donated to the nonprofit Epworth Children’s Home in Columbia, says he wants $350,000 in state funding for a foster care program run by the organization, bypassing the S.C. Department of Social Services.
What the five lawmakers – all of whom sit on the powerful, budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee – have in common is that their proposed appropriations in the approximately $30 billion state budget for fiscal 2019-20 are designated as earmarks.
The six earmarks would be funded under a state budget proviso divvying up more than $328 million in actual and projected state surplus revenues.
Under House rules, earmarks are funding requests by House members for specific programs or projects – which can include private nonprofits – that didn’t originate with the state agency that would receive the public dollars. It’s been a longstanding practice that some lawmakers have reserved to secure state funding for their favorite projects.
Earmarks typically are not publicized in advance. The Nerve obtained the latest earmark list on Friday from House Clerk Charles Reid through a state Freedom of Information Act request – three days after the Ways and Means Committee introduced its version of the state budget. The list was posted on the Legislature’s website Monday after the budget debate began in the full House.
The rationale behind earmarks varies with each lawmaker.
Finlay, R-Richland, who is chairman of the Ways and Means budget proviso subcommittee, told The Nerve on Monday that state funding should be provided to the Epworth Children’s Home for its foster care program because the state DSS is “not producing the number of foster care families that we need,” and that if the agency was “doing their job appropriately, I wouldn’t have to do this.”
“We would love DSS to fix the problem, but they can’t or they haven’t,” he said. “We better step up and do the best job we can for South Carolina’s future citizens.”
Finlay acknowledged that he has personally donated to Epworth Children’s Home, noting that John Holler, the organization’s president, “does a wonderful job.”
Holler could not be reached Tuesday for comment. According to the organization’s latest published annual report, the average residential population at Epworth was 53 in 2017; it began its foster care program that year, licensing nine foster homes and serving 12 clients.
DSS spokeswoman Pam Bryant said Tuesday the department “wouldn’t have a comment on the proposed appropriation” by Finlay, adding, “I think we will have the opportunity to speak with him directly.” She provided The Nerve with a department chart showing that as of Feb. 1, there were a total of 4,619 children in foster care and 1,711 regular foster homes statewide.
Bannister, R-Greenville, who is chairman of the Ways and Means constitutional subcommittee, told The Nerve on Tuesday that “economic development recruiters” have identified a lack of a convention center in downtown Greenville as a “shortfall.”
The city and county of Greenville are working with the Greenville County Museum of Art and Bob Jones University’s Museum & Gallery to form a nonprofit to manage the yet-to-be constructed convention center in downtown Greenville, he said.
The total estimated cost of the project is about $320 million, with the city and county each committing $26 million, and the project developers donating land purchased at $26 million to the city, Bannister said.
Asked why millions in state dollars should be committed to the project, Bannister replied: “It is a unique opportunity, and it would have economic benefit to Greenville and the state that the Department of Commerce is chasing all the time. It would be a tool to recruit the kind of jobs and businesses we want here.”
Bannister said there isn’t enough convention space downtown to “get aerospace or tire or auto associations to come to Greenville to do events,” adding that the 280,000-square-foot Greenville Convention Center, located outside the downtown area, it “too far from the hotels” and “too far from downtown.”
The proposed convention center would house the art collection of Bob Jones University’s Museum & Gallery, which, according to its website, contains “one of the largest and most interesting collections of European Old Masters paintings in America.” According to news reports, the museum has been closed for about two years because of various repair issues; Bannister said the university is “looking for a new place to put their exhibits.”
“If this funding were approved, it would take basically one of the premier Christian art exhibits and put it in the middle of downtown Greenville,” he said.
Loftis, R-Greenville, who co-sponsored the earmark, did not return phone messages this week seeking comment.
As drafted, the earmark would go through the S.C. Arts Commission. In an email Tuesday to The Nerve, commission spokesman Jason Rapp said the commission would “simply be a pass-through agency for the proposed funding,” adding although the agency was “aware” of the proposal, “We do not have a position on the (state budget) proviso, funding, or project itself.”
Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, who is chairman of the Ways and Means economic development subcommittee, told The Nerve this morning that the $1.5 million earmark for the South Carolina Aquarium is needed to move power generating equipment to avoid potential flooding, the risk of which has increased in recent years.
Asked why state funding should be provided to a private nonprofit that he and his wife have contributed to recently, according to the aquarium’s 2017 annual report, Stavrinakis replied, “There are multiple levels of return on investment to state taxpayers,” noting the attraction generates revenue for the state, and that 60,000 public school students visit the aquarium annually.
An aquarium representative did not return a written message Tuesday seeking comment. In a June 20, 2016, Facebook post, the aquarium wrote, “Warm thanks to Leon Stavrinakis and Paul Campbell and our friends at the state legislature who helped secure $270,000 in funding for our new Sea Turtle Care Center (Opening in May 2017).”
Then-Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed the $270,000 provision and two other unrelated funding requests, writing in her June 8, 2016, veto message, “Given that each responsible entity has a stable private funding stream, we should not support taxpayer funded earmarks.” The Legislature overrode the veto for the aquarium funding.
Stavrinakis’ latest earmarks would go through the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, as would the two earmarks sponsored by Huggins, R-Lexington, a member of the Ways and Means transportation and regulatory subcommittee.
Contacted Monday by The Nerve, Huggins said the $1.5 million for the Three Rivers Greenway project would be administered by the Central Midlands Council of Governments as the state match for a federal grant. He said the project, the total cost of which is pegged at $6 million, would extend the Greenway’s public area from the Lake Murray dam to the Vista commercial area in Columbia.
As for the proposed $250,000 for Special Olympics South Carolina, Huggins said the money is “for their various programs,” adding the organization “doesn’t get a lot of extra funds.”
In a written response this morning to The Nerve, PRT spokeswoman Dawn Dawson-House said the earmarks sponsored by Huggins and Stavrinakis are “not part of SCPRT’s original or amended budget requests,” and that the agency “does not have a position on those items.”
The House early today overwhelmingly gave key approval to the proposed state budget, including the earmarks cited in this story. The budget debate will move to the Senate, and any differences between the chambers would be worked out in a joint conference committee before a final budget version approved by the Legislature is sent to Gov. Henry McMaster for his consideration. The new fiscal year starts July 1.
Reps. Jonathon Hill, R-Anderson, and Josiah Magnuson, R-Spartanburg, were the only House members to vote against the proviso section containing the earmarks.
Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.
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