House members approve public funding for their pet projects

March 14, 2018

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

At least three S.C. House members – and some of their favorite nonprofits – were probably happy with today’s early morning passage of a $28 billion-plus state budget.

Buried deep in the 2018-19 budget, which passed the House by a 117-2 vote and now goes to the Senate, are nearly $1 million in collective earmarks  for three private, nonprofit organizations, House records show.

The various funding requests were made by Charleston County Republican Reps. William Cogswell and Mike Sottile, and Rep. Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville.

Cogswell sits on the board of trustees of one of the nonprofits.

None of the lawmakers immediately responded to requests this week by The Nerve for comment.

Under House rules, an earmark is a funding request by a House member for a specific program or project – 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 on both sides of the House aisle, as The Nerve has previously reported.

The House rules require that earmark requests include the names of the House members making the requests, and an explanation of the programs or projects to be funded. Initial earmark proposals are filed as part of the House Ways and Means Committee’s version of the state budget, though the rules allow requests to be made throughout the entire budget process.

Although posted on the Legislature’s website, the earmark list has a disclaimer at the top that reads in part, “It is strictly for the internal use and benefit of members of the House of Representatives and is not to be construed by a court of law as an expression of legislative intent.”

Cogswell, who sits on the board of trustees of the Charleston Library Society, and Sottile jointly sponsored a $250,000 earmark to state Department of Archives and History to repair water damage at the Library Society’s Beaux Arts Building, according to the earmarks list.

Sottile sponsored a separate $200,000 earmark to the state archives agency for an expansion project at the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, while Loftis sponsored a $500,000 earmark to the state Arts Commission for an expansion project at the South Carolina Children’s Theatre in Greenville, the list shows.

Federal income-tax records for the three private, nonprofits show that in calendar or tax year 2016, the Charleston Library Society received $1.1 million in total revenues; the American College of the Building Arts, $2.4 million, including $500,000 in government grants; and the South Carolina Children’s Theatre, $3.9 million.

Asked about details of the water damage to the Beaux Arts Building, Anne Cleveland, the Charleston Library Society’s executive director, said in an email Tuesday that Hurricane Matthew, which hit the Lowcountry area in October 2016, revealed “such serious issues with the building’s integrity that we had to commit to an extensive renovation/repair plan.” She said a total of $3.5 million has been budgeted for that project.

Cogswell was elected in January to the organization’s board of trustees, she said, noting that “we are thrilled to have a ‘younger’ member to represent the next generation.”

“He is a dedicated bibliophile, and he has been a marvelous spokesman in Columbia making the case that while the Charleston Library Society may be located in Charleston, it is the oldest cultural institution in the South and the second oldest circulating library in America,” Cleveland said.

The $250,000 earmark that Cogswell and Sottile sponsored for the Library Society, as well as Loftis’ $500,000 earmark for the South Carolina Children’s Theatre, would come out of a projected nonrecurring-revenue pot of $20.6 million for next fiscal year, which starts July 1. Those funds are authorized under a one-year budget proviso that passed the House by a 115-1 vote.

The other $200,000 earmark sponsored by Sottile for the American College of the Building Arts would be drawn from the state’s projected $145.1 million Capital Reserve Fund, which is intended to be used for fiscal emergencies but typically is raided yearly by lawmakers for their pet projects, as The Nerve has previously reported.

The House early today approved a Capital Reserve Fund spending bill by a 112-1 vote.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve. 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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