BY ROBERT BEHRE, SCHUYLER KROPF and BO PETERSEN
As lawmakers return Tuesday to Columbia to act on Gov. Nikki Haley's 76 vetoes, many Charleston groups affected by the potential financial cuts are mobilizing to build public support for why some should be overridden.
The nonprofit Palmetto Project, supporters of the Palmetto Trail, and advocates of Charleston's Southeastern Wildlife Expo are all making pitches, saying Haley's data is wrong or that her office is overlooking the public benefit.
SEWE brings an estimated $50 million or more in tourism revenue to the Lowcountry each year, and a direct tax revenue of $3 million to $5 million, said board Chairman Neil Robinson. The wildlife and arts festival draws about 40,000 people to Charleston each February, an otherwise lean time of year for tourism.
Haley's veto message argues that the nonprofit festival's management is for-profit, and the festival last year increased its assets by about $250,000 - the amount requested from the state.
But Robinson said the for-profit management firm was dissolved two years ago, and the asset increase reflected equipment moved from the management group to the nonprofit, not cash.
SEWE's nonprofit reports to the IRS show the festival steadily losing money. Robinson acknowledged as much and said the request from the state is intended to help balance the books.
"The governor just has been given bad information, and we could have straightened it out with a phone call," he said. The festival pays out in revenue $15 or more for each dollar of state funding requested. "For the state not to recognize what we do for it is hard to fathom," he said.
Haley's office says the vetoes are necessary to cut earmarks from organizations that "either don't need them or don't provide cost-effective services to the taxpayers," according to spokesman Doug Mayer.
"It's predictable these organizations would object to losing state funding but we are confident the General Assembly will vote on the side of fiscal responsibility and sustain these vetoes."
The nonprofit Palmetto Project, a school-based program to enroll eligible students in Medicaid, is in danger of losing $100,000 to a Haley veto. Her veto message said the group failed to meet basic performance standards set up with the Department of Health and Human Services and that the program hasn't been successfully completed and, therefore, is not worthy.
Steve Skardon, executive director, has taken issue with the governor's reasoning in rejecting the expenditure.
"The five-county pilot project, which the governor says does not exist, is on schedule, and ready for final implementation when children return to school in August," he said.
Skardon added, "It looks like the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. This is a project that actually makes money for the state. You'd think she would have at least tried to get her facts straight."
The Palmetto Conservation Foundation hopes to close the final eight gaps in the 500-mile-long Palmetto Trail that stretches from the mountains to Awendaw, but the pace of that work will hinge on whether Haley's rejection of $150,000 for the trail holds up.
In her veto message, Haley said the trail has access to other government and nonprofit funding, but foundation director Natalie Britt said it is important for the state to buy into it.
Britt noted the state approved between $200,000 and $600,000 a year to build the trail between 1995 and 2008, when funding ended as the recession began.
This year's request is to reopen that spigot, at a smaller amount. Britt noted the state's dollars have been matched more than one-to-one, "and that doesn't include all the volunteer investment."
If lawmakers don't override the veto, it will take longer to close a gap in the trail near Rich Mountain in Pickens County, to reroute a portion around Eutawville in Orangeburg County and to replace dated signs along the Lowcountry's portion, she said.
The foundation recently finished a strategic plan for finishing the trail, which Britt said could be done in about five years if all goes well. A sustained veto of the $150,000 would be a hurdle.
"It will just slow us down, and we're on a mission to finish this," she said.