Lawmakers Hide Their Pet Projects in State Budget

July 5, 2013

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Pig BrideIt may be hard to miss a pig in a dress, but some South Carolina legislators apparently go to great lengths to hide pork in the state budget.

Case in point: The Senate’s votes last week on Gov. Nikki Haley’s vetoes of a section of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ budget for next fiscal year, which started Monday.

In one of her vetoes, Haley rejected a proposed $608,128, which included $500,000 in general funds, for DNR’s conservation-education “outreach” programs. Haley wrote in her June 25 veto message that although there is “some value to these services, this is hardly the most important aspect of DNR’s mission.”

“Furthermore,” Haley continued, underlining and boldfacing her sentence for emphasis, “I am struck by the fact that even though DNR only requested an increase of $68,905 for this program, this budget inexplicably increases spending in this area by a full $500,000.”

The big increase was quietly slipped in the first version of the state budget passed by the House Ways and Means Committee in February, nearly doubling the total proposed appropriation for “outreach” programs to more than $1.2 million, according to budget records reviewed by The Nerve. A House-Senate budget conference committee last month didn’t change the proposed amount.

The budget documents don’t specify the purpose of the increased spending, labeled only as “other operating expenses.” During the June 27 Senate floor debate, a member of the budget conference committee, Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee and the Senate majority leader, questioned Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley, who had asked his Senate colleagues to override Haley’s veto of the $608,128, about the purpose of the requested funding.

“Information I have received is that it funds, on a recurring basis, $250,000 to fund a fishing program for two House members to be on the program,” said Peeler, a member of the Senate Finance Committee. “Could you clear that up?”

“There may be some House members involved in the fishing program,” Campbell, also a member of Senate Finance, acknowledged in response, “but the fishing program is for outreach for DNR to advertise to bring out-of-state people to come in and use our resources.”

Campbell identified the “fishing program” as the “Bob Redfern’s Outdoor Magazine” television program, which airs nationally on various channels. He described it as “probably the most widely viewed program in the United States.”

Neither Campbell nor Peeler identified the House members who were connected to the appropriation for the Redfern program, though Peeler half-jokingly threatened to do so, asking Campbell, “Do you want me to put that name on it?”

“I think you and I know who that is,” Campbell replied with a smile, though he added, “I don’t want to call any names from the well of the Senate.”

Contacted Wednesday by The Nerve, Campbell initially was hesitant to name the author of proposed funding for the Redfern program, though when pressed further, he responded, “Brian White had something to do with the fishing program.”

White, R-Anderson, is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee that initially approved the higher amount for DNR and also was a member of the House-Senate conference committee that approved the appropriation.

White also is an outdoorsman. According to his biography on the Legislature’s website, he served as the 2011-13 chairman of the South Carolina Sportsmen’s Caucus, and as a member of the executive committee of the National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses.

“A powerful House member can go to an agency (DNR) and say, ‘Help me hide this request. We ask you to put this in there (the state budget) and fund it.’” Peeler said to Campbell during the June 27 Senate floor debate. “What are they going to say? No?”

“Do you agree with me that this is not the proper way to ask for funding for this these types of programs?” Peeler pressed Campbell. “This should be asked for on the (budget) line, not rolled up like it was rolled up to try to hide it.”

“There’s probably a better way to fund it,” Campbell replied, though he added, “But what you’re trying to do is micro-manage DNR if we didn’t do something like this. DNR should have the ability to take their funding and do the sponsorships and advertising where they choose.”

Neither Peeler nor White responded to multiple phone messages Wednesday from The Nerve seeking comment.

Earmark for Wildlife Nonprofit

Campbell himself had more than a passing interest in opposing Haley’s veto of the $608,128 for DNR’s “outreach” programs. He told The Nerve that approximately $400,000 of the amount would have been used not only for advertising on the Redfern television program, but also to promote the annual Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (SEWE), held in February in Charleston.

Campbell is a board member of the nonprofit SEWE, according to its website, which describes the annual three-day exposition as the “largest event of its kind in the nation, attracting over 500 artists and exhibitors from around the globe who present their offerings to over 40,000 attendees.”

“Is this your earmark for the Southeastern Wildlife Expo?” Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, asked Campbell during last week’s floor debate.

Replied Campbell: “I will tell you this, senator: If you call that an earmark that brings in $5 million a year to the state of South Carolina, I guess you can call that an earmark.”

In recent years, lawmakers have appropriated $50,000 to $200,000 for the exposition as line items in budget provisos, though the $200,000 for last fiscal year was on a list of about $15 million in post-budget cuts because of a decrease in expected surplus revenues.

Federal tax records for the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition show that as of the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2012, the organization took in nearly $1.3 million in revenues, including $165,310 in government grants. James Huggins, the organization’s president and CEO, earned $167,174 that year.

Ultimately, despite Campbell’s sales pitch, the Senate in a 23-17 vote on June 27 failed to get the necessary two-thirds vote to override Haley’s veto of the $608,128 for DNR. Campbell voted for the override; Peeler and Martin voted to sustain the veto, Senate Journal records show.

The day before, the House voted 97-21 to override the veto. White was among those who voted for the override, House Journal records show.

“Quite frankly, I wished they had put it (the requested $608,128) in (the budget),” Campbell told The Nerve. “It’s money well-spent.”

‘Masquerading in Disguise’

But DNR didn’t go away empty-handed.  Following the House’s lead, the Senate later voted to override – after earlier voting twice to sustain – another Haley veto of $200,000 for unspecified “outreach” programs. The money would come primarily from expected surplus money at the end of last fiscal year.

In her veto message, Haley blasted the lack of transparency in the budget request.

“It is therefore unsurprising that this line appears in the final budget bearing the same euphemistic name that it carried as it traveled through the House of Representatives,” Haley wrote. “There is no question, though, that this line is merely the transfer to SEWE (Southeastern Wildlife Exposition), masquerading in disguise. Please respect South Carolina’s taxpayers – and their intelligence – by sustaining this veto.”

Campbell, who requested on the Senate floor last week that Haley’s veto be overridden, told The Nervethat none of the $200,000 would be used for the exposition, noting, “In her veto message she was confused.”

In a written response this week to questions from The Nerve, DNR spokesman Brett Witt said the $200,000 will be used to:

  • · Expand the “Take One Make One” youth hunter program in the Upstate;
  • · Expand the “Wounded Warrior” program for the state’s “growing number of disabled veterans”;
  • · Replace aged equipment for the “Archery in the Schools” program;
  • · Promote the agency’s partnership with the National Wild Turkey Federation’s “Women in the Outdoors” program; and
  • · “Maximize partnership opportunities” with organizations such as the National Rifle Association and the Association of Sportsmen Caucuses.

The $608,128 that the Legislature rejected would have been used to promote “additional youth opportunities and would have specifically marketed the state’s natural resources to a broader nationwide audience of sportsmen and boaters,” Witt said.

Witt did not mention either the Redfern television program or the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in his response. He also didn’t immediately respond to The Nerve’s follow-up questions about which lawmakers pushed for the funding requests.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.