Lawmakers easily override governor’s vetoes on pet projects

October 8, 2018

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

S.C. Senate president pro tempore Hugh Leatherman appeared relaxed and confident before last week’s votes, at one point smiling and giving a thumbs up.

Leatherman, R-Florence, didn’t make any long speeches in asking his Senate colleagues to override Gov. Henry McMaster’ vetoes of parts of a state budget proviso directing a total $7.1 million to Francis Marion University.

And, in two quick votes, Leatherman, who has a science building on Francis Marion’s campus named after him and whose daughter sits on the university’s board of trustees, got what he wanted.

Leatherman, an emeritus member of the Francis Marion board of trustees, is the longtime chairman of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee, which in April quietly added $7.1 million to the university’s budget for the fiscal year that started July 1, as The Nerve previously reported.

In his July 5 veto message, the Republican McMaster said the proposal – $5 million for a medical and health education classroom complex and $2.1 million for the honors college – “represents special treatment above and beyond what was afforded to any other higher education institution.”

McMaster noted the Legislature already had allocated nearly $50 million from the state’s capital reserve fund – a constitutionally mandated “rainy day” fund that lawmakers typically raid annually – to South Carolina’s universities on “an equitable and pro-rata basis.” Francis Marion will receive $3 million from that fund for its medical and health education complex.

After Leatherman – arguably the state’s most powerful lawmaker – asked his colleagues on Wednesday to override veto numbers 33 and 34 authorizing the collective $7.1 million for Francis Marion, the Senate overwhelmingly agreed, following the House’s lead earlier that day. There was no debate on the vetoes in either chamber.

The House and Senate also easily overrode McMaster’s vetoes (numbers 13 and 14) of parts of the same budget proviso directing $250,000 to the state Department of Archives and History for the Charleston Library Society’s Beaux Arts Building, and $500,000 to the S.C. Arts Commission for the South Carolina Children’s Theatre.

The Nerve revealed in March that Charleston County Republican Reps. William Cogswell, who sits on the board of trustees of the Charleston Library Society, and Mike Sottile jointly requested the $250,000 earmark, while Rep. Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville, sponsored the $500,000 earmark.

Under House rules, an earmark is a funding request by a House member for a specific program or project – which can include private nonprofits such as the Charleston Library Society and the South Carolina Children’s Theatre – that didn’t originate with the state agency that would receive the public money. It’s been a longstanding practice on both sides of the House aisle, as The Nerve has previously reported.

Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Anderson, who was one of about two dozen House members who voted last week to sustain McMaster’s vetoes of the two earmarks, questioned from the House floor whether the state agencies receiving the funds could fulfill their missions to taxpayers if money were allocated to the nonprofits without any written contracts or other direct working arrangements. Loftis said he wasn’t aware of any contract between the Arts Commission and Children’s Theatre.

“How does this not simply take money from the taxpayers of South Carolina and just donate it to a (nonprofit) of our choice?” Hill asked Loftis, who described the $500,000 as “pass-through money.”

Loftis, a member of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said the Children’s Theatre serves 12 counties and provides a variety of activities for children, including free reading services to disadvantaged students.

“It’s not free when every taxpayer in South Carolina is paying for it,” Hill replied.

Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson and the Ways and Means Committee chairman, said a separate budget proviso requires nonprofits receiving funds through state agencies to submit annual reports to the agencies on how the money will be spent. He described the state budget as the “people’s budget – different people have different requests,” and the Children’s Theatre as a “fabulous group out of Greenville.”

Under questioning from Hill about the $250,000 for the Charleston Library Society’s arts building, Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, first vice-chairman of Ways and Means, replied, “I think of so many people today who say, ‘We want government to be about no opulence at all.’ You know what? I agree with that.”

“But I look at what government stands for …” Simrill continued, “and I can’t help but think, ‘I am proud to stand up and to keep South Carolina as unique and historical as it possibly can be,’ and this is one small stone ($250,000 earmark) in that wall that helps do that.”

Simrill said Rep. Cogswell proposed the funding to a budget subcommittee, though Simrill didn’t specifically mention Cogswell’s membership on the Library Society’s board of trustees.

Following are links on how each lawmaker voted last week on the vetoes listed in this story:

Veto 13 (House)

Veto 13 (Senate)

Veto 14 (House)

Veto 14 (Senate)

Veto 33 (House)

Veto 33 (Senate)

Veto 34 (House)

Veto 34 (Senate)

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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