Earmark secrecy continues as state budget goes into effect

June 30, 2021

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

In vetoing 226 budget earmarks totaling $152.5 million, Gov. Henry McMaster last week wrote that the “bulk of these earmarked appropriations still lack sufficient context, description, explanation of merit, or justification as to how the recipient intends to spend the funds.”

That might be one of the biggest understatements on how lawmakers funnel surplus tax dollars to their pet projects.

Under House and Senate rules, earmarks are funding requests by legislators for specific programs or projects that didn’t originate with a written agency budget request, or weren’t included in the prior fiscal year’s state appropriations.

Lawmakers slip in earmarks during the budget process ever year. And with a projected $1.8 billion more in state funds to play with for the fiscal year that starts Thursday, dozens of lawmakers couldn’t wait to hop on the earmark gravy train.

As expected, the Legislature on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to override McMaster’s vetoes of all but $14 of the $152.5 million in earmarks – while maintaining secrecy surrounding many of those appropriations.

Take, for example, the $12 million earmark listed in state budget records for unspecified “infrastructure” projects in downtown Spartanburg. That money would flow through the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (SCPRT).

Senate president Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, whose district includes part of Spartanburg County, and Sens. Scott Talley, Shane Martin and Josh Kimbrell – all Spartanburg County Republicans – co-sponsored the $12 million earmark, Senate records show, while county GOP Reps. Max Hyde, Rita Allison and Travis Moore requested a $5 million “infrastructure” earmark, according to House records.

A joint budget committee that included Peeler earlier this month approved the $12 million earmark as part of the $32.3 billion total state budget for fiscal 2022, as The Nerve reported.

Contacted Monday, Rep. Rosalyn Henderson-Myers, D-Spartanburg, said it was her understanding the earmark would be used for an office building, business incubator and parking garage. But she added she wasn’t a co-sponsor of the earmark and didn’t have any more specifics, referring The Nerve to the three House co-sponsors.

The Nerve on Monday left phone or written messages for all seven lawmakers who co-sponsored their respective chamber’s earmark, seeking specifics on how the money would be spent. Only Allison responded, though she told The Nerve she didn’t have time to talk then, referring questions to Allen Smith, president and CEO of OneSpartanburg Inc., and noting that he had a “whole white page” of project details.

On its website, OneSpartanburg describes itself as a merger of the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce, Spartanburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Spartanburg Economic Futures Group, created to “maximize our community’s investment.”

Smith didn’t respond to written and phone messages this week from The Nerve seeking comment. The Nerve on Tuesday also left written messages for Spartanburg mayor Junie White and city manager Chris Story but received no response.

Except for Allison, who had an excused absence from Tuesday’s legislative session, all of the Spartanburg County delegation members who co-sponsored the earmark and four other delegation members, including Henderson-Myers, voted to override McMaster’s veto of a budget subsection that contained the earmark. Two other county delegation members – Sen. Tom Corbin and Rep. Josiah Magnuson, both Republicans – voted to sustain the veto of the budget subsection, records show.

Although the $12 million earmark would flow through SCPRT, how exactly the money is tied to state tourism is unknown. Asked for project details, agency spokeswoman Samantha Queen in a written response Monday to The Nerve said, “SCPRT has not yet been provided details on this budget item.”

Queen said the earmark wasn’t included in SCPRT’s written budget request for fiscal 2022. Asked about the agency’s position on the earmark, she replied, “We are responsible for administering the budget as directed by the South Carolina Legislature and Governor.”

There is no state law or legislative rule requiring lawmakers to reveal how their earmarks would be specifically spent, or to hold separate public hearings on their proposals.

Bryce Fiedler, a policy analyst with the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, contributed to this story. 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.

Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.

 

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