Gov. Mark Sanford has been making the national-media rounds, criticizing the $787 billion Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed by President Barack Obama last week. Our governor deems the "so-called stimulus plan" so objectionable that he might turn down a significant chunk of the $2.8 billion it includes for South Carolina over the next two years. That would be an expensive mistake.
Yes, Gov. Sanford raises pertinent concerns about how much economic stimulation the stimulus will provide — and at how high a price.
No, South Carolina can't afford to pass up federal funding just because its "stimulus" title looks like a stretch. The money can help us get through a devastating revenue crunch that threatens essential state services, including schools and prisons.
Joel Sawyer, the governor's spokesman, told us Monday that Mr. Sanford is still pondering his stimulus decisions. He said that while Gov. Sanford will approve taking the stimulus' $25 boost in weekly unemployment checks for this year, he "almost certainly" won't approve a "longer-term commitment" for jobless benefits.
Why? Because as Gov. Sanford pointed out two days ago on "Fox News Sunday," the "substantial strings attached" to that long-term unemployment money would allow Washington to dictate a fundamental — and costly — change in the way our state distributes jobless assistance. The governor made this case:
"What we would be required to do would be, for the first time, increase the level of benefits for part-time workers. In other words, right now, it's full-time workers — increase it to part-time workers. But this same fund had to go to the feds this fall to borrow $140 million, and has come back to ask another $170 million from the fed. And so it becomes somewhat circular. We can't pay for the benefits already in the program, but to get the stimulus money, we've got to increase the program's size and scale."
Fair point. Yet expanding those benefits to unemployed part-time workers in exchange for federal help hardly seems excessive. After all, they don't have jobs, and our state did have the nation's third-highest unemployment rate in December at 9.5 percent.
Gov. Sanford has another fair point in disputing the rosy employment-boosting scenarios painted by stimulus supporters, including President Obama. The governor likened those forecasts to "the Soviet grain quotas of Stalin's time — 'X' number of jobs will be created because Washington says so."
The governor also justifiably objected to the charge from fellow South Carolinian James Clyburn, the U.S. House Majority Whip, that if "Black Belt" governors — including Mr. Sanford — rejected stimulus money, it would be "a slap in the face of African-Americans."
As Mr. Sanford said Sunday: "The idea that color would filter into that decision-making process is absurd."
So, though, is the idea of our state turning down much, if any, stimulus money in our current dire fiscal circumstance.
Mr. Sanford, during six years in Congress and six years as governor, has been an admirably frugal steward of taxpayer money. As governor he has repeatedly run afoul of fellow Republicans who run the General Assembly — and more or less the state — by refusing to go along with the free-spending status quo. In the often-testy process, Gov. Sanford has helped to advance the cause of overdue reforms that, if enacted, will make the state budget less vulnerable to inevitable economic downturns.
The governor, with his deserved reputation as a staunch fiscal conservative, is frequently touted by pundits as a potential 2012 presidential candidate. His high-profile role as a relentless anti-stimulus spokesman certainly makes him look like a willing and eager White House hopeful. And he refused to rule out such a bid Sunday, explaining: "I've learned that you never say 'guaranteed' on tomorrow when you don't know tomorrow."
But for now, Mr. Sanford is still merely our governor. And as our governor, while he has a right to express his well-founded qualms about the stimulus, he would be wrong to deprive our state of the federal money it desperately needs.