S.C. Congressmen Exaggerating Job Claims?

August 24, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveWhen the U.S. House two weeks ago passed a bill that supposedly would bring $282 million in new federal aid to South Carolina, Reps. Jim Clyburn and John Spratt proudly proclaimed that the funds would save teacher, police officer and firefighter jobs statewide.

“Keeping American jobs at home and saving the jobs of our teachers, cops and firefighters is important,” Clyburn, the Democratic House majority whip from Columbia, was quoted as saying in an Aug. 11 article in The State. “It will help keep our communities safe and keep classrooms from getting too big.”

Spratt, the Democratic House Budget Committee chairman from York, was quoted in the same article as saying that besides preventing more teacher layoffs, the bill would save the jobs of 2,300 police officers, firefighters and emergency workers, and private-sector employees who supply goods and services to state and local governments.

The two congressmen apparently were parroting the message of President Barack Obama, who said during the Aug. 10 ceremony of the signing of the $26.1 billion appropriations measure, “We can’t stand by and do nothing while pink slips are given to the men and women who educate our children or keep our communities safe.”

But Mark Keel, director of the S.C. Department of Public Safety, which is made up of the Highway Patrol, State Transport Police and Bureau of Protective Services; and Jeff Moore, executive director of the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association, have questions about the state’s share of the federal money for law enforcement.

“I have not heard anything specific with regard to that about how it would benefit us,” Keel told The Nerve last week.

Moore was even more direct.

“It’s not going to get to local law enforcement,” Moore said last week, noting he spoke with a legislative liaison in Washington, D.C. “It’s only going to be used – if it’s used at all – to save state-level law enforcement jobs.”

Contacted last week by The Nerve, a spokeswoman for Spratt at his Washington, D.C., office said that because the congressman was on official recess, “We don’t have a statement at this point.”

Clyburn spokeswoman Hope Derrick was more subdued compared to her boss’ initial published statements when contacted by The Nerve on Aug 12.

“The first responder funds are up to the South Carolina Legislature,” Derrick said in a written response. “This federal infusion of funds for education and Medicaid will free up state funds that were previously allocated to cover those shortfalls. The hope is that the General Assembly will take those funds and invest them in first responders.”

Of the approximate $282 million, about $138 million is earmarked for Medicaid programs. The new aid has to comply with federal stimulus laws, though certain changes were made in the appropriations bill.

Derrick’s response came before news last week that South Carolina might not receive $143.4 million for education because of language in the federal bill that requires states to maintain a certain level of funding for both K-12 and higher education programs.

Derrick did not respond to follow-up questions last week from The Nerve about that glitch and Clyburn’s initial statements about the stimulus funds saving police officer and firefighter jobs.

S.C. Department of Education spokesman Jim Foster told The Nerve last week that the state meets the funding requirements for K-12 but apparently not for higher education. He said state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex was working with congressional and other officials on a possible solution.

Earlier, Foster told The Nerve that his department had received no specifics from Washington on how the money would be distributed to local school districts. He also said the federal aid likely wouldn’t have a big impact on local school budgets for this fiscal year, which started July 1.

“District superintendents are telling us that they might restore a few key positions mid-year, but not in any large-scale way because they have already set their class schedules and enrollments, and teachers are already back at work,” Foster said in written response on Aug. 12. “Superintendents say that for the most part, they will use these funds to avert layoffs next school year.”

“Districts have eliminated 4,000-6,000 positions over the last two years,” he continued, “and they project eliminating several thousand more next year due to additional funding cuts. This (new federal) money could soften that blow.”

Moore said sheriff’s departments statewide could use the federal aid – if it were available –to help make up for budget cuts, noting that no state general funds are earmarked specifically for local departments.

“It’s been pretty bad the last several years,” he said. “They’ve all had to find ways of cutting while at the same time maintaining the same level of service.”

Keel said he was relieved that the S.C. Legislature approved a final budget for DPS that added about $10.5 million over an initial budget version approved by the House, noting, “They basically put us in a position of maintaining what we have and not doing any more cuts.”

Still, Keel said although he’s pleased that statewide traffic fatalities this year are on pace to fall below 800 – the first time since 1982 – he said his troop strength, which stands at about 830, “needs to be up around 1,100.”

“Is having 750 fatalities acceptable?” he said. “The answer is ‘no.’”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.