Revolutionary War project: 250 years later, taxpayers squeezed again?

November 10, 2021

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

When it comes to South Carolina history, some state officials might need a refresher course.

S.C. taxpayers are on the hook for about $1.5 million this fiscal year and possibly could shell out as much as nearly $10 million in fiscal 2022-23 for a legislatively controlled committee created in 2018 to recognize the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution – which, ironically, started largely over taxation of the colonists.

The S.C. Department of Archives and History (SCDAH) recently has been advertising for an executive director for the “South Carolina American Revolution Sestercentennial (250th anniversary) Commission,” at an annual state salary ranging from $90,000 to $100,000, records show. In comparison, SCDAH director Eric Emerson makes $100,821 yearly, according to the state salary database.

Besides advertising for an executive director, the commission has hired an office manager in the “40,000 to $45,000 salary range,” and also has proposed creating two additional “mid-level management positions to manage grants and coordinate construction projects,” commission chairman Charles Baxley, a Lugoff attorney, said Tuesday in a written response to The Nerve.

For this fiscal year, which started July 1, lawmakers designated $1.46 million out of state surplus funds to the SCDAH for the commission. Baxley provided The Nerve with a $9.9 million budget request for next fiscal year – $8 million of which is listed under a category labeled “Acquisition & Site Development.” Out of the $1.46 million appropriation for this fiscal year, $595,000 is earmarked for the same purpose, records show.

The Nerve first reported in January about the $1.46 million appropriation, which was part of Republican Gov. Henry McMaster’s state spending proposal for this fiscal year.

To put it into some context, the proposed $9.9 million for next fiscal year, if approved, would be $433,936 more than SCDAH’s total current budget, including the $1.46 million for the commission. It also would be more than the current total budgets of at least 20 other state agencies, including, for example, the State Ethics Commission, Secretary of State’s Office and the Administrative Law Court.

Fiscal 2022-23 budget proposals by state agencies will be posted this month on the Department of Administration’s website, department spokeswoman Kelly Coakley told The Nerve this week.

SCDAH director Emerson, who reviews and approves his agency’s annual budget proposal, referred The Nerve’s questions about the sestercentennial commission to Baxley.

The commission’s “big thrusts” for this fiscal year are “helping South Carolina get ready to positively capitalize on 250th anniversary driven cultural heritage tourism and to tell South Carolina’s stories of her role in the American Revolution and the birth of our state and nation,” said Baxley, who was appointed commission chairman in 2019 by McMaster, Secretary of State records show.

Although the sestercentennial in 2026 officially recognizes the 250th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Baxley said the commission sees the anniversary period “running to the end of the Revolutionary Era,” which would put it in 2033. That would include having paid full-time staff until then “if we clearly demonstrate positive results to the people of South Carolina and their representatives,” he said.

Lawmakers in 2018 unanimously passed a joint resolution creating the commission. The legislation was sponsored by then-Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Democrat from Camden – home of a Revolutionary War museum complex.

Under the resolution, which was amended in 2019, four members of the 15-member commission are appointed by the Senate president, four by the House speaker and four by the governor. The other three members, by virtue of their offices, are the governor or his designee (Baxley), the state Archives and History Commission chairman, and the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (PRT) director.

Current commissioners include state Reps. Neal Collins, R-Pickens, and Steve Moss, R-Cherokee; former Sen. Floyd Nicholson, D-Greenwood; and former Rep. Laurie Funderburk, D-Kershaw, according to Secretary of State records and the commission’s website.

Senate president Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, appointed Nicholson, while House speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, appointed Collins, Moss and Funderburk, Secretary of State records show.

The $9.9 million sought for next fiscal year, including the $8 million for site acquisition and development, would be used to “facilitate interpretation of more Revolutionary War battlefield sites” and building “safety highway pull-offs to interpret some of our most important sites that will not become parks,” Baxley said in his email response Tuesday.

The state has more than 400 Revolutionary War sites, with most “battle and skirmish” locations owned by private individuals or corporations, Baxley said. Purchasing any sites would be “negotiated on a case by case basis,” he said, noting the commission would own no real property, and no sites would be purchased for more than the appraised value.

Potential site owners could include county and city governments that already have historical commissions, private foundations and the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust, Baxley said. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources owns several sites, and others could be added to “existing holdings of PRT,” he said.

Asked if the commission plans to continue its existence beyond 2033, Baxley replied, “This is a political and economic question which our State’s leadership will need to answer then.”

He added that “we firmly believe that Revolutionary Era based cultural heritage tourism will become a strong part of our backcountry economy, and more and more folks in SC and the world will know and respect our forefathers for what they accomplished, moderated with what they didn’t.”

Marketing and public relations costs total $76,000 for this fiscal year and $192,000 in the proposed 2022-23 budget, according to records provided by Baxley.

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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