Lawmakers continue to push their pet projects – at taxpayer expense

March 10, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

In debating next fiscal year’s state budget, House members could decide this week whether to funnel $23 million through the state’s tourism department and nearly $2 million through the S.C. State Museum for projects or programs that neither agency formally requested, records show.

Most of those funding requests are included on an earmark list released Monday by the House Clerk’s Office. The Nerve on Friday revealed that the House Ways and Means Committee’s budget version contained $19 million for a proposed downtown Greenville convention center and $7.5 million to renovate the Sumter Opera House, though neither project was listed by the state Arts Commission in its fiscal 2020-21 budget proposal.

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

The Nerve asked for the latest House earmark list last month under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, though House clerk Charles Reid as of Thursday said it wasn’t ready.

Ways and Means chairman Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, acknowledged in Friday’s story that he and Rep. David Weeks, D-Sumter and a Ways and Means member, requested the $7.5 million earmark for the Sumter Opera House.

Smith said that project and the $19 million for the proposed Greenville convention center were contained in Gov. Henry McMaster’s budget version for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The Nerve last year revealed the initial House budget earmark for the Greenville project.

According to the earmark list released Monday, Smith proposed spending an additional $10 million statewide in “film incentives” – wage and supplier rebates – through the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (SCPRT) “in order to secure additional film projects.” Other proposed SCPRT earmarks, along with their House sponsors, include:

  • $6 million for “upgrades” at the Spartanburg Convention Center (Spartanburg County Republican Reps. Rita Allison, Mike Forrester, Max Hyde, Eddie Tallon);
  • $2.5 million for the “revitalization” of downtown Seneca (Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee, who is the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee chairman);
  • $1 million for the “final phase” of renovations to the Charleston Visitor Center (Reps. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, who is the House Judiciary Committee chairman; and Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston);
  • $1 million for the “Vista Greenway” in Richland County, described as “Green space development for public use” (Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland).

In email response Monday to The Nerve, SCPRT spokeswoman Dawn Dawson-House said the agency didn’t request any of the above items, or four other projects or programs approved by the House Ways and Means Committee though not included on the earmark list: $1.7 million for the South Carolina Aquarium, $400,000 for Kings Mountain State Park, $250,000 for Special Olympics and $150,000 for Dreher Island State Park.

Under a House rule, a funding request that didn’t originate with a state agency typically won’t make the current House earmark list if the project was included in the prior fiscal year’s state budget.

Dawson-House said the agency doesn’t know which House members requested the latest SCPRT earmarks, adding, “We have no position on those items.”

Besides projects or programs funded through SCPRT, House members also proposed the following earmarks through the State Museum, according to the earmark list:

  • $1.5 million for the Shaw Joint Base Military Museum in Sumter County (Murrell Smith, Weeks);
  • $250,000 for the International African American Museum in Charleston, which, according to its website, is scheduled to open next year (Rep. David Mack, D-Charleston);
  • $200,000 for the Agricultural Museum of South Carolina in Pendleton (Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, who is the immediate past Ways and Means chairman).

Those requests are not listed in the State Museum’s written budget proposal, though the Ways and Means Committee approved the projects. In an email response today, museum spokesman Jared Glover confirmed the agency didn’t request the budget items, adding, “The museum has no position on the requests made.”

The proposed earmarks funded through the State Museum and SCPRT would come mainly out of a projected $945.5 million in nonrecurring revenues for next fiscal year, part of an estimated $1.8 billion-plus state surplus, under the Ways and Means budget version.

After the full House passes its version of the $32.3 billion state budget, it will go to the Senate; any differences between the chambers’ versions likely would be resolved by a joint conference committee. The Legislature’s final budget bill will be sent to McMaster for his veto consideration.

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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