Plenty of pork in proposed state agency budgets for 2020-21

November 22, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

With $1.8 billion more in projected general funds in the state budget for next fiscal year, state agencies are hoping to fulfill their growing wish lists.

Their taxpayer-funded requests collectively include millions for such things as promoting private sporting events, businesses and products, along with potentially generous handouts to select companies.

Consider the following recently submitted agency budget requests for fiscal 2020-21, which starts next July 1:

  • Citing “substantial visitor spending losses” resulting from recent “hurricane activity,” the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (PRT) wants an additional $1 million for tourism advertising, noting the agency has “partnered” with the popular band Hootie & The Blowfish, which had its start in Columbia, to “develop inspirational videos promoting travel” to South Carolina.
  • PRT and the Department of Commerce each is asking for $360,000 to promote the private PGA Championship in 2021 on Kiawah Island. PRT has made taxpayer-funded sports marketing a priority in recent years, as The Nerve reported in May.
  • Commerce wants $250,000 to begin to “manage” the newly created $65 million “Rural School District and Economic Development Closing Fund,” pushed by Gov. Henry McMaster and approved by the Legislature, to be used “solely, and without exception, for economic development” in rural areas, according to McMaster. Commerce didn’t respond to The Nerve’s written request earlier this year for specifics on the program.
  • Commerce also is asking for $3.7 million for “closing” fund grants awarded by the state Coordinating Council for Economic Development, which is chaired by Commerce director Bobby Hitt and typically discusses grants in secret, to help cover building, road and infrastructure costs of companies locating or expanding in the state. For fiscal 2018, lawmakers approved nearly $21 million for the fund.
  • In addition, Commerce wants $4 million for its lesser-known “LocateSC” program, which, as The Nerve reported last year, funds improvements to land and buildings to develop into “suitable inventory that we can show potential projects,” according to a Commerce spokeswoman.
  • The Department of Agriculture is asking for an additional $400,000 to market its “Certified SC Grown brand and its products more aggressively, through additional television commercials.” The program essentially is a state-sponsored advertising campaign for South Carolina farmers and goods producers, as The Neve has previously reported.

None of the three agencies is hurting for money: The total budgets of Commerce, PRT and Agriculture for the current fiscal year are $200.5 million, $136.7 million and $52.1 million, respectively, which include state, federal and “other” funds, S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office records show.

And that doesn’t include the millions in reserves the agencies typically have to start with each fiscal year. As of June 30, the combined general and “other” fund reserves of Commerce, PRT and Agriculture were $145.7 million, $80.3 million and $11.4 million, respectively, according to state Comptroller General’s Office and Department of Administration records.

The Nerve last month revealed that state agencies and divisions, along with several major state funds, ended last fiscal year with a total of nearly $3.9 billion in other-fund cash balances.

The state’s total budget this fiscal year is more than $30 billion. Earlier this month, the state Board of Economic Advisors projected an additional $1.834 billion in general fund revenues for next fiscal year, including $815 million in net recurring funds and another collective $1.019 billion in estimated and actual nonrecurring surplus money.

Agency budget requests are provided annually to the governor, who submits his or her version to lawmakers, but they largely disregard it and draft their own spending plan. A final legislative version eventually is sent to the governor, who can issue line-item vetoes, though lawmakers usually override most vetoes.

As The Nerve and its parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council, have pointed out repeatedly, a longstanding state law requires that the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees hold joint, open hearings on the governor’s proposed budget within five days after receiving it.

But legislators routinely have ignored that law.

Hannah Hill, senior policy analyst with the South Carolina Policy Council, along with SCPC analysts Bryce Fiedler and Kelly Brady, contributed to this story. 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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