COLUMBIA — The state Supreme Court was tapped Thursday to intervene in a fight between Gov. Mark Sanford and South Carolina's legislative leadership over whether to accept money designated to help public schools survive the recession.
Casey Edwards, an 18-year-old senior at Chapin High School in Columbia, asked the court to allow the Legislature to bypass the governor and take $700 million in budget aid from the federal government's stimulus package.
Chief Justice Jean Toal acknowledged the suit later Thursday and compelled Attorney General Henry McMaster to respond on behalf of the state by 1 p.m. Monday. The suit is between Edwards and the state, not Sanford.
Edwards said she wanted to make sure every student in South Carolina receives the same quality of education she has received, and wanted to wade into the stimulus fight to make sure that happens. She is represented by attorneys Dwight Drake, a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, and former state Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian.
"I think our schools really do need that money," Edwards said. She is deciding between a number of full academic scholarships that she has been offered.
Sanford said he will accept $700 million in federal stimulus money only if the Legislature applies an equal amount of state cash toward debt. He argued that there is more than enough wasteful spending in the state budget to fund core services, including public schools, while paying down debt. Legislative budget writers warn of mass layoffs and "budget Armageddon" if the state does not get that stimulus money, which must be spread over two years.
The governor dismissed the suit as being filed by longtime political insiders who, he said, have made millions at taxpayer expense. "We believe the Supreme Court will ultimately see it as the politically driven press spectacle that it is, rather than a suit with any actual merit," Sanford said in a statement.
McMaster issued a nonbinding 17-page opinion March 31 that the Legislature cannot bypass the governor to accept $700 million in federal stimulus money, although he noted that this is a decision that will ultimately have to be decided by the court.
The $700 million is only a portion of the $2.8 billion in stimulus cash South Carolina stands to gain, and the only portion in dispute. In all, the state's portion could grow to $8 billion when all the tax breaks and grant money are factored in.
"I'm pleased the Supreme Court is expeditiously addressing this lawsuit, as its premature filing may be perceived as partisan and politically motivated — because the governor and Legislature still have time to resolve the issue prior to the end of the legislative session," McMaster said in a statement Thursday.
Chief legislative budget writer Sen. Hugh Leatherman, a Florence Republican, said if the Supreme Court acts fast enough he would want to plug the stimulus money into the budget. But Sen. Larry Grooms, a Bonneau Republican, said that he would not be surprised if this court action triggers another in federal court, creating an even longer delay in receiving the funds.
Casey Edwards v. The State of South Carolina, and the supporting documentation from the Nelson Mullins law firm, (73-page PDF)