Governor, House want SC taxpayers to eat plenty of pork in fiscal ’21

March 6, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Buried in the latest $32.3 billion state spending plan for next fiscal year is a $19 million expenditure for a proposed downtown Greenville convention center, and another $7.5 million to renovate the Sumter Opera House.

The total $26.5 million – which is larger than the overall proposed fiscal 2020-21 budgets of at least 45 state agencies or divisions, including, for example, the Election Commission and police training academy – would flow through the S.C. Arts Commission, under the House Ways and Means Committee state budget version.

The requested $26.5 million is nearly double the Art Commission’s total current budget. Yet the relatively small agency didn’t ask for that extra money in its formal budget request for next fiscal year, which starts July 1, commission spokesman Jason Rapp confirmed when contacted Thursday by The Nerve.

Asked which House members requested the additional funding in the Ways and Means budget version, Rapp replied in an email, “We are not aware, but have ourselves asked, without success, who requested those.”

In a written response Thursday, Ways and Means chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said he and Rep. David Weeks, D-Sumter and a Ways and Means member, “signed the earmark request for the Sumter Opera House.”

He said the earmark and the expenditure for the proposed Greenville convention center were included in Gov. Henry McMaster’s state budget version, and that the Ways and Means Committee “followed his (McMaster’s) recommendations.”

Earmarks are funding requests for specific programs or projects that didn’t originate with the state agency that would receive the public dollars. The Nerve for years has repeatedly pointed out the longstanding practice by both the House and Senate.

Earmarks are not identified as such in the budget. The Nerve last week requested the House’s latest complete earmark list under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act; House clerk Charles Reid in an email response Thursday said only, “We do not have it yet.”

Smith said it was his understanding that Sumter city mayor Joe McElveen, who is the father of state Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, and other city representatives met with McMaster to request funding for the opera house, where many city departments also are located. Smith said he, Sen. McElveen or other lawmakers were not involved in those discussions.

Smith also said he didn’t know who specifically requested the Greenville convention center expenditure, though he noted an initial amount for the project – $7 million – was included in the current fiscal year state budget, and that he believed “most of the Greenville (legislative) delegation requested it last year.”

The Nerve last year revealed that Rep. Bruce Bannister and former Rep. and now state Sen. Dwight Loftis, both Greenville County Republicans, requested funding for the proposed convention center through a budget earmark. Bannister said then the center would house a large art collection that had been displayed at the private Bob Jones University; he didn’t respond Thursday to a written request for comment.

McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes didn’t respond Thursday to The Nerve’s written questions about the governor’s spending proposals for the opera house and convention center. In his fiscal 2020-21 state budget version, McMaster designated, through the Arts Commission, $15 million for the opera house and $19 million for the planned “Greenville Cultural and Arts Center.”

The full House is expected to take up the Ways and Means budget version next week. The House’s spending plan will then go to the Senate; any differences between the two chambers’ versions typically are resolved by a joint conference committee. The Legislature’s final version will be sent to McMaster for his veto consideration.

The requested $26.5 million for the opera house and convention center in the Ways and Means budget version would come out of a projected $945.5 million in nonrecurring revenues, part of a total estimated $1.8 billion-plus state surplus. Whether any of that windfall will be refunded to taxpayers remains to be seen.

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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