By RICK BRUNDRETT
As S.C. lawmakers head into the final weeks of adopting an approximately $30 billion state budget for next fiscal year, their taxpayer-funded goody bag keeps growing bigger.
For years, lawmakers have slipped in funding requests – often for their own pet projects – through obscure state budget provisos. The latest budget cycle is no different.
Take the 46-member Senate chamber, for example. The Senate this month quietly added $1.25 million to its chamber budget for unspecified “operating” expenses, budget records show – on top of a $250,000 hike that the House earlier proposed for each chamber.
If enacted, the Senate chamber’s budget for fiscal 2020, which starts July 1, would grow by over 11% to $16.3 million. The budget for the 124-member House chamber next fiscal year would be $22.7 million with its $250,000 increase.
As The Nerve pointed out last month, both chambers are sitting on huge reserves while seeking more tax dollars. The Senate entered this fiscal year with a $6.1 million surplus, while the House carried over $25 million in general funds – nearly $2.9 million more than its entire chamber budget last fiscal year.
Senate president Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee; Senate Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence; and Senate clerk Jeff Gossett did not respond to written questions this week from The Nerve about the proposed $1.25 million hike for their chamber, which was first approved by Leatherman’s committee.
That increase would come out of more than $344 million in actual and estimated state surplus funds authorized under a budget proviso, and is part of a long, ranked projects list. If expected surplus revenues fall short, affected projects won’t be funded starting from the bottom of the list.
The Senate ranked the $1.25 million hike for its own chamber at No. 8 out of 46 categories, pushing down on the list a proposed $37 million appropriation to the state Department of Mental Health for the construction of three nursing homes for veterans.
Also on the Senate-adopted list are a number of special funding requests by House members, as revealed last month by The Nerve. The “earmarks” include:
- $7 million ($5 million in the House budget version) through the state Arts Commission to help build a convention center in downtown Greenville, which Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, said would house a large art collection that had been displayed at the private Bob Jones University.
- $1.5 million to the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (PRT), which Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Lexington, said would be used to match a federal grant to extend the Three Rivers Greenway trail area in Richland and Lexington counties. The Senate also would funnel another $1.2 million from surplus funds to PRT for unspecified “advertising.”
- $350,000 that Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, said would pass through the state Department of Social Services for a foster care program run by the nonprofit Epworth Children’s Home in Columbia, which Finlay acknowledged that he has supported financially.
Besides those requests, the Senate version of the surplus-fund projects list includes – ranked just below the proposed $1.25 million hike for the Senate chamber – $950,000 to the state Department of Employment and Workforce (DEW) for the “Be Pro Be Proud” program.
In his budget request for next fiscal year, Gov. Henry McMaster described it as a “workforce initiative” that “targets key audiences such as high school and nontraditional students … to dispel myths about the skilled trade and technical professions,” and “to promote degree and certificate programs at our technical schools.”
According to an Arkansas website, the “#BeProBeProud” program there involves a “tricked-out” semi tractor-trailer visiting schools to encourage students to consider careers such as truck drivers, electricians, plumbers, tool-and-die makers and computer programmers.
A DEW spokeswoman did not respond to questions this week from The Nerve seeking more details on the budget request.
Big budget bucks
As for taxpayer-backed incentives, the Senate, through a separate budget proviso, would give $50 million to the state Department of Commerce to establish the “Rural School District and Economic Development Closing Fund.”
McMaster, who called for $100 million for the fund, said in his budget request that Commerce would distribute the funds in “rural areas with the stipulation” that the money “be used solely, and without exception, for economic development in those districts,” though he didn’t provide specifics.
A Commerce spokeswoman did not respond to questions this week from The Nerve seeking more details about the proposed fund. Under the Senate’s plan, the money would come out of funds leftover after paying back state bonds.
Commerce already has millions of dollars at its disposal through other economic development funds, including the “deal closing fund,” which, according to the agency’s website, assists with the “costs of real property improvements or other road or infrastructure improvements.”
Last year, The Nerve reported about the little-known “LocateSC” fund, which a Commerce spokeswoman at the time said “helps the state be proactive in developing land and existing properties into suitable inventory that we can show potential projects.”
Both the House and Senate versions of next fiscal year’s state budget would, under the proviso allocating state surplus funds, give Commerce $4 million and $3.7 million for the LocateSC and deal closing funds, respectively.
The Senate’s version of that proviso also would provide $500,000 to the state Department of Transportation for “T-bridge repair and rehabilitation.” A separate proviso directs DOT and Santee Cooper to develop a plan for “stabilizing and repairing the US 15/US 301 bridge over Lake Marion for public pedestrian and bicycle traffic based on a study by the Palmetto Conservation Foundation using the bridge as a connector route for the Palmetto Trail.”
The Nerve has repeatedly pointed out that DOT has spent relatively little from revenues generated under the 2017 gas-tax-hike law on fixing the state’s crumbling roads and bridges.
Another Senate budget proviso would give nearly 15 percent pay raises in fiscal 2020 to judges elected by the Legislature, including Supreme Court justices. The House budget version would give judges a 33% pay hike, which was recommended by Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty, whose own salary would jump from $156,234 to $208,000, as The Nerve reported in December.
Differences between the House and Senate budget versions will be worked out in a joint conference committee before a final approved plan is sent to McMaster for his consideration. The regular legislative session is scheduled to end on May 9, though lawmakers are expected to return in later May to take up any budget vetoes by McMaster and certain other specified matters.
The Legislature routinely ignores a longstanding law requiring the House and Senate budget-writing committees to hold joint public hearings at the beginning of the budget process on the governor’s proposed state spending plan.
Hannah Hill, senior policy analyst with the South Carolina Policy Council, contributed to this story. 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.
Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.