Plenty of Pork to Pass Around in Fiscal 2015 State Budget

July 2, 2014

Investigative Reports

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Pigs at TroughS.C. Sen. Paul Campbell serves on the governing board of the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, an annual event in Charleston that draws tens of thousands of visitors and hundreds of artists, exhibitors and wildlife experts from “around the world,” according to its website.

But the Berkeley County Republican apparently didn’t see any conflict of interest when he asked his fellow senators on June 18 – the second-to-last day of this year’s legislative session – to override Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto of $200,000 for the three-day exposition.

The veto was overridden by a 33-9 vote – more than plenty of votes needed to meet the two-thirds requirement for an override.

The appropriation for the wildlife exposition was among 15 overridden vetoes in the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism’s (PRT) budget for fiscal 2015, which started Tuesday. Five other vetoes in PRT’s budget were sustained or continued by the House and were not acted on by the Senate.

Together, the 20 vetoes represented 26 percent of the collective 76 vetoes issued by the Haley for the $24 billion total state budget ($25.5 billion-plus if you include the projected $1.5 billion in federal food-stamp payments that the state Department of Social Services has said it transfers to an “unbudgeted account”).

No other state agency came close to having the number of vetoes overridden in PRT’s budget, The Nerve found in a review of state budget documents.

Together, the 15 overridden vetoes total $5,625,000, which is more than the overall budgets of 25 state agencies or divisions listed in the fiscal 2015 state budget, including, for example, the State Ethics Commission, Administrative Law Court and Department of Consumers Affairs, The Nerve’s review found.

But that apparently didn’t matter to the lawmakers who pushed for approval of their own pet projects.

Following is a list of the overridden vetoes, ranked by dollar amounts, along excerpts of Haley’s written veto messages:

  • $2 million – Sports development fund for youth sports organizations: “Although the associated proviso language calls for a dollar-for-dollar non-state match, state government has no business handing out taxpayer dollars to soccer teams, even if there is debatably a positive economic impact.”
  • $1 million – Parks and recreation development program: “(W)e should address the needs of our state-owned facilities before we provide funding for other park or recreation organizations.”
  • $500,000 – “Undiscovered South Carolina”: “During the past three years, appropriations to … (PRT) marketing programs have increased substantially. … I believe that the rise in marketing costs has been quite enough.”
  • $400,000 – International marking through PRT: “Each year’s budget already distributes millions of dollars through the Department of Commerce and (PRT) for various tourism-related marketing efforts.”
  • $300,000 – Football exhibition games: “Although the budget contained no language directing the use of these funds, it’s hard to imagine that these resources would be used to provide an essential state service.”
  • $250,000 – Historic Woodrow Wilson family home, Columbia:  Labeled by Haley under the heading “Earmarks for Museums, Historical, and Cultural Facilities.”
  • $200,000 – Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (SEWE): “First, we shouldn’t be spending taxpayer dollars to promote an event that has had no trouble attracting attendees even without our help. … Second, SEWE doesn’t need this money.”
  • $200,000 – Walhalla Civic Auditorium historic preservation: Labeled by Haley under the heading “Earmarks for Museums, Historical, and Cultural Facilities.”
  • $150,000 – Greenville Children’s Museum: Labeled by Haley under the heading “Earmarks for Museums, Historical, and Cultural Facilities.”
  • $150,000 – Black Expo in Columbia, Charleston and Upstate: “These events are organized by the Thomas Media Group, LLC, which is a for-profit corporation. Taxpayers should not be subsidizing the marketing of these events.”
  • $150,000 – Palmetto Trail: “The Palmetto Trail already has access to a variety of federal, state, and philanthropic funding sources. … (W)e should address the needs of the State Park System before we provide funding for other park or recreation organizations.”
  • $100,000 – South Carolina Hall of Fame, Myrtle Beach: Labeled by Haley under the heading “Earmarks for Museums, Historical, and Cultural Facilities.”
  • $100,000 – South Carolina Equine Park, Camden: The park has “made real progress raising funds from users of the facility and from the local community. The Foundation should continue to target its fundraising efforts there, rather than seeking an earmark from the state’s taxpayers.”
  • $75,000 – Town of Eastover historic preservation: Labeled by Haley under the heading “Earmarks for Museums, Historical, and Cultural Facilities.”
  • $50,000 – Jones Gap State Park Fire Department: “These funds were not requested by (PRT).”

The total $5.6 million will come out of state surplus revenues.

Campbell, who is executive director of the Charleston County Aviation Authority, and Sens. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, and Mike Fair, R-Greenville, collectively asked their colleagues to override eight of the 15 vetoes, according to the official Senate Journal.

Campbell, who asked for veto overrides on the SEWE, “Underdiscovered South Carolina,” international marketing and parks and recreation development programs; and Grooms, who requested overrides on the Palmetto Trails and sports development fund vetoes, represent areas that rely heavily on the tourism industry. Fair called to override vetoes for the Greenville Children’s Museum and the exhibition football games.

As for Campbell and his representation on the SEWE board, the nonprofit organization’s federal tax return for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2013, shows that it took in more than $1.5 million in revenues, including $173,345 in government grants. The organization in recent years has been appropriated $50,000 to $200,000 annually through state budget provisos for its three-day exposition, as The Nerve has previously reported.

The Nerve on Tuesday left phone messages for Campbell, Grooms and Fair seeking comment but received no responses.

On the House side, Reps. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley; Mike Pitts, R-Laurens; and Brian White, R-Anderson and chairman of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, collectively introduced requests to override all but two of the 15 vetoes, the House Journal shows.

Pitts and White didn’t respond Tuesday to phone messages from The Nerve. Merrill, who introduced six of the override requests for the 15 vetoes, told The Nerve Tuesday that his Ways and Means subcommittee handles annual PRT budget requests.

“I’m basically doing my job and representing my (budget) section,” he said, noting that the final state budget passed by the General Assembly was done without going through the normal conference-committee process to work out differences.

When it comes to spending state tax dollars on specific projects handled by non-public groups, there often is bipartisan and cross-chamber support. For example, two Richland County lawmakers – Sen. Joel Lourie, a Democrat, and Rep. Kirkman Finlay, a Republican – introduced the veto override requests for the $250,000 appropriation for the Woodrow Wilson family home in Columbia. White and Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, introduced override requests for the $150,000 appropriation for the Black Expo events.

Asked if legislators supported fellow lawmakers’ projects to get votes for their own projects, Merrill replied: “That’s pretty much it. The entire (budget) agreement would have pretty much unraveled if people didn’t support other people’s projects.”

Merrill said it was the “general feeling” in the House and Senate earlier in the budget process that “these (PRT) projects were worthy of support.” He acknowledged, though, the argument by critics that tax dollars appropriated for most of those projects could have been better spent on core government services.

“That’s why we have politics,” Merrill said. “People are going to disagree with things all the time.”

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