COLUMBIA — Gov. Mark Sanford set up a confrontation with the Legislature on Tuesday when he vetoed virtually the entire $5.7 billion budget, including two years worth of stimulus cash for schools and public safety.
Legislators warn that the move could leave thousands of teachers without a job and thousands more South Carolina public school students in overcrowded classrooms. They say that the recession has hit the state so hard that the stimulus money also is needed to keep prisons operating, troopers on the highway and college tuition down.
The vetoes set up a showdown in the Legislature that is expected to start today in the House. Lawmakers will either have to override the vetoes or rewrite the budget to meet
In past years, Sanford's vetoes have been overturned one after another. This year, the governor said he's got an army of fed-up taxpayers who are pressuring the legislators to change their spending habits.
The budget tries to force Sanford to take $700 million over the next two years. Congress designated the money for South Carolina to help pay for education and public safety. Half of that, $350 million, would be spent in the budget that starts July 1.
Sanford wants an equal portion of state money to be used to pay down debt, or he won't tap the funds.
The governor said the $700 million portion is the only amount he can control. The disputed stimulus money is part of a total $2.8 billion that is available to South Carolina in the next two years for government services, an amount that could grow to $8 billion when tax breaks and grants are factored in.
The attempt by legislators to force the governor to take the money against his better judgment is an attempt to usurp his authority, Sanford said.
"The logical question would be, then why have a governor?"
Sanford continued, "This is an unusual and unprecedented step forward in the degradation of the balance of power that is vital to a functioning government."
The question got top Senate budget writer Hugh Leatherman thinking.
"That may not be a bad position for the state to be in," he said. "Obviously, this governor is just philosophically different than the General Assembly is. I guess what makes me wonder is, is one person correct; one person right, everybody else wrong?"
Leatherman, a Florence Republican, said he expects the Legislature to make short order of Sanford's vetoes.
Superintendent of Education Jim Rex, a Democrat, said public schools need the cash that is tied up in Sanford's vetoes to operate.
"More South Carolina teachers' jobs are being eliminated every day, so we need to get these federal funds into the pipeline as quickly as possible," Rex said.
Legislators argue that South Carolina taxpayers will be obligated like the rest of the country to repay the national debt. If the state doesn't take the money, it would be split between other states.
But Sanford said that is not entirely true. First, he said, he wants to compromise with the Legislature and find a way to pay for basic government services by refocusing on priorities. Then, he wants to pay off the state's debt. Sanford said the stimulus cash will be available for South Carolina to take for the next 18 months, leaving plenty of time for the two sides to compromise on a plan.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a Charleston Republican, noted that the governor pitched the idea of using the stimulus cash to pay off debt to Obama, and his administration rejected it twice.
"It is simply not legally possible to do what the governor is saying; it would only ensure that South Carolina's money would be sent to other states while our citizens are left paying it back," Harrell said. "The governor's vetoes take away money that would keep teachers in the classroom and criminals in prisons. We owe it to our teachers and law enforcement officers to override these vetoes."