Budget ball in Sanford's court

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford

COLUMBIA — The $700 million question remains.

But now Gov. Mark Sanford has a $5.7 billion one on his desk.

The issue with which he will wrestle is whether to accept a legislative edict to take the disputed federal stimulus funds, or say no again.

A court battle that could be waged within the month might be the only resolution.

The Legislature, after more than three months of fighting with the governor, crafted a two-prong approach in response. They wrote a bare-boned budget that meets many of Sanford's concerns and they drafted a separate provision to spend $350 million in stimulus money, the first of two equal annual installments intended to help sustain government services through the recession.

At stake, legislative leaders argue, is money from the stimulus funds to keep hundreds of teachers in the classrooms, prevent steep predicted college tuition increases and improve public safety by ensuring prisons stay open and putting troopers on the highways.

The two-term Republican governor and his legislative allies, including Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, see a difference consequence: unsustainable spending that will lead to more dramatic budget cuts two years from now when the federal stimulus money runs out.

What happens now

Here is how the situation should play out in the coming days. Sanford has five days to issue budget vetoes, which he will do.

The Legislature traditionally easily overturns the governor's vetoes. If that happens next week, it would start a second five-day clock.

The governor would then be required to tell the federal government to send South Carolina its portion of the stimulus budget aid.

At this point, legislators say there are several potential outcomes, but the most likely is a court challenge because Sanford is not likely to change his mind and take the money.

Other possibilities include intervention from Washington, D.C., that could bypass the governor and deposit the budget aid in state coffers.

Sanford is studying all his options now, press secretary Joel Sawyer said Wednesday. He told the legislators that he would not request the federal government's budget aid unless South Carolina applies an equal portion of state dollars toward debt.

The governor has not ruled out mounting his own court challenge against the Legislature's edict for him to draw down the $700 million.

Sanford's detractors

House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, both Charleston Republicans, said they believe Sanford is wrong on his position with the stimulus money. They argue that the decision was made by Congress to spend the money, and taxpayers in South Carolina will be stuck with the bill even if the state never sees that portion of the funds.

"There are no other states in the country where the governor has not requested this money that their taxpayers are paying back anyway," Harrell said.

Tough economic conditions are expected to cost 1,000 teachers their jobs, according to the state Department of Education, and that is if schools receive the stimulus cash in question. Without it, 500 more teachers would be out of work.

The budget drama in Columbia won't be settled in time for districts to meet a Friday deadline to issue contracts for next school year.

How it got to this point

Even if South Carolina does not get the $700 million, the state is still supposed to receive $2.1 billion in stimulus money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for government programs over the next two years. Sanford opposes the entire federal stimulus package. He believes, though, that the only portion he can control in South Carolina is the $700 million, which would be split evenly between the budget that begins July 1 and the following fiscal year.

The state's share could grow to $8 billion when all the tax breaks and grant funds are counted, but the bulk of that money is not under the Legislature's influence.

If a court battle is waged in the coming weeks, it won't be the first. The state Supreme Court denied a request in April to allow the Legislature to bypass the governor and take $700 million.

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HOW THEY VOTED

The Legislature has sent a $5.7 billion budget to Gov. Mark Sanford. The budget was especially controversial because of a provision in it that spends federal stimulus money that Sanford has rejected.

Here is a look at how local legislators voted on the key budget roll call. The House voted 95-18 on the budget Tuesday and the Senate took the 32-14 vote Wednesday.

Republicans for: Campbell, Goose Creek; Daning, Goose Creek; Harrell, Charleston; Horne, Summerville; Limehouse, Charleston; Merrill, Daniel Island; Sottile, Isle of Palms; Umphlett, Moncks Corner; and Young, Summerville.

Republicans against: Campsen, Isle of Palms; Cleary, Murrells Inlet; Grooms, Bonneau; McConnell, Charleston; Rose, Summerville; and Scott, North Charleston.

Democrats for: Brown, Hollywood; Ford, Charleston; Gilliard, Charleston; Hutto, Charleston; Jefferson, Pineville; Knight, St. George; Mack, North Charleston; Matthews, Bowman; Miller, Pawleys Island; Pinckney, Ridgeland; Stavrinakis, Charleston; Whipper, North Charleston.

Democrats against: None.

WHAT THEY'RE SAYING

"When your taxpayers are going to have to pay back money, it doesn't make any sense to send that money to other states, and that is the situation."

"I firmly believe we will get the stimulus money, and with the dire economic times that this state is in, we would have been absolutely foolish not to have gone ahead and authorized that money."

"I think the stimulus plan is wrong out of Washington. They're gushing red ink, which is not good for this country. But that is the law. Why get mad enough to cost yourself money? The people are stuck with the bill. Get some benefit out of it. That's my philosophy."

"We're saying, 'Governor, it doesn't matter what you say. We're going to pass a resolution to force you to do it anyway,' knowing full well that this thing is probably going to land in the courts. And what are we supposed to say to those folks who are depending on their salaries as part of those stimulus dollars when they don't come in or when they're delayed by court action?"