Big government grows with new state agencies

May 5, 2021

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

No matter who’s in charge, state government in South Carolina just keeps getting bigger.

Three stand-alone state agencies created since Republican Henry McMaster became governor in 2017 – the departments of Veterans’ Affairs and Children’s Advocacy, and the newest agency, the Office of Resilience – would have combined total budgets of $173 million for next fiscal year, under the state budget version passed last week by the Senate.

The total proposed amount for the three agencies under the earlier-passed House version is somewhat smaller at $172.4 million. The overall state budget, which includes state, federal and “other” funds, for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is $31.8 billion under the Senate version compared to $31.1 billion under the House version – a difference largely due to a more optimistic state revenue projection.

The Nerve reported last week that senators were pushing a total of nearly $108 million in special earmarks through 23 state agencies for dozens of pet projects. The 90 earmarks include $170,000 for the Department of Children’s Advocacy (DCA) and $60,000 for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA).

Combined, the DVA, DCA and Office of Resilience (OOR) had 206 employees as of April 9, according to S.C. Department of Administration records.

DVA director William Grimsley makes $139,085 annually, Department of Administration records show; the salary for OOR head Ben Duncan would be the same under the House and Senate budget versions for next fiscal year. DCA director Amanda Whittle makes $127,500 yearly.

McMaster appointed all three agency heads, with Senate confirmation.

With the creation of the three agencies, some programs and functions were transferred from the Department of Administration. Yet the total proposed fiscal 2022 budget for the state’s main administrative agency would be $298.3 million and $289.7 million under the Senate and House versions, respectively – compared to $286.7 million appropriated for fiscal 2019, records show.

Under a state law passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature and signed by McMaster last September, the purpose of the Office of Resilience is to develop a “Statewide Resilience Plan” and “coordinate statewide resilience and disaster recovery efforts.” The law also transferred the Disaster Recovery Office from the Department of Administration to the new agency.

The agency was created following recent years of record flooding in the state, and will handle funding for flood projects and federal disaster aid, according to media reports.

Under the Senate and House budget versions for fiscal 2022, $100 million in federal disaster-recovery funds would be transferred from the Department of Administration to the OOR. The new agency also would get another $40 million to $50 million in state surplus money for a “Resiliency Reserve Fund” created with the 2020 law.

The total proposed $148.1 million for the OOR under the Senate’s spending plan includes more than $2 million in recurring state funding. The agency as of April 9 had five employees, according to Department of Administration records.

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs, created by lawmakers in 2019 with McMaster’s support, helps veterans with obtaining health care and other VA benefits; administers a trust fund that provides grants to veterans’ service organizations, county veterans’ affairs offices and other charitable organizations that support veterans; and manages the state Military Base Task Force, according to its website.

The Senate version of the fiscal 2022 state budget would appropriate $5.3 million in total funds to the DVA, compared to $2.7 million under the House version. The agency had 25 employees as of last month, Department of Administration records show.

In March, The Nerve revealed that separate House and Senate bills would eliminate DVA director Grimsley’s authority in the removal of county veterans’ affairs officers, designating them as “at-will” employees of legislative delegations.

The Department of Children’s Advocacy was created under a law passed by the Legislature and signed by McMaster in 2018, and began operating the following year. As of last month, the DCA had 176 employees, records show.

The agency “champions advocacy, accountability and service to improve outcomes for children served by state agencies in South Carolina,” according to its website. It investigates complaints against other state agencies that deal with children; manages a statewide volunteer guardian-ad-litem program for abused and neglected children; operates a program that serves children with the “most severe and complex emotional or behavioral health challenges”; and administers the state Foster Care Review Board.

The Senate and House versions of the fiscal 2022 state budget would appropriate $19.6 million and $19.4 million, respectively, in total funds for the agency. In comparison, its total budget for fiscal 2020 was $19.1 million, records show.

Differences between the Senate and House state budget versions for next fiscal year are expected to be worked out in a joint legislative committee. The regular legislative session is scheduled to end next week, with lawmakers returning to Columbia in June to deal with, among other things, any vetoes by McMaster on a final budget version passed by the Legislature.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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