Before the Legislature gets all self-righteous about earmarks, let’s make one thing clear:
Spending $30 million on local pet projects isn’t a crisis, it’s a rounding error.
In recent weeks, several lawmakers have sounded the alarm about “shadow” spending — you know, pork — in the state’s $9 billion budget. These are allocations usually championed by a single member and tucked into nondescript budget line items ... and most people don’t know they’re there.
As if many people, or even rank-and-file legislators, could recite any chapter or verse from the state budget.
Thanks to recent news reports on earmarks, a few lawmakers have taken to their soapbox, decrying the lack of transparency and even suggesting an election-year ban on such allocations.
It makes for good politics … but it’s a bad idea.
Now, it’s true that powerful legislators with the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees sometimes trade these earmarks to win support for their own projects. Sen. Dick Harpootlian, an earmark critic, admits he got one last year to improve railroad crossings in Columbia.
All he had to do was support Sen. Hugh Leatherman’s bill to clear up railway issues at the Charleston Ports Authority terminal.
That has all the earmarks of backroom politics, even quid pro quo. Cue the outrage.
But consider this: If ever a city needed improved railroad crossings, it’s Columbia. And Charleston needed that Ports Authority terminal mess cleaned up. That's the art of compromise. Or, as they used to call it, politics.
It’s not particularly pretty, but it keeps the trains running.
Truth is, for the most part, these “secret” appropriations are not scandalous. They might fund body cameras for police officers in St. Stephen, help a nonprofit keep its doors open or ensure another year for a local festival.
For instance, in the past, the state has kicked in $100,000 or $200,000 to market Charleston’s Southeastern Wildlife Exposition. That helps, because SEWE is put on by a nonprofit that is never flush with cash.
Free market, you say? Well, in a single week SEWE generates $3 million to $5 million in direct tax revenue for the state, draws visitors to the coast in the off-season and is terrific publicity for South Carolina. Estimates peg its annual economic benefit at $60 million.
It just makes good business sense to keep SEWE running, even if some people — ahem, former Gov. Nikki Haley — kept vetoing that money because it wasn’t a “core function” of government. And she couldn’t find much else to cut.
To be fair, most earmarks don’t have such a direct, bottom-line benefit. But if the Legislature chips in to help finish a walking trail in Lancaster, upgrade the restrooms at a Jasper County park (which is the state’s responsibility anyway) or preserve a historic building in Camden, that only makes South Carolina a better place.
The Post and Courier recently identified $37 million worth of earmarks in the latest state budget. That’s a lot of money to be sure, but it amounts to roughly three-tenths of 1 percent of the state’s operating budget. When you're juggling $9 billion in appropriations, yes, that’s a rounding error.
Or $6 and change off everyone’s state tax bill.
Critics say the problem is these appropriations don’t go through normal channels, aren’t debated or voted on separately. And, yes, sometimes money ends up going to a project or organization of questionable merit.
But the Legislature evidently doesn't have enough time to fix education or prisons, so is it reasonable to think they'd find even a half-hour to debate a public dock in Bluffton?
This system is certainly old school, and it absolutely benefits the cool kids at the Statehouse. It wouldn’t hurt for the Legislature to let in a little sunshine and come up with a more open process. But don’t throw out earmarks.
Why? Two words: Jim DeMint. Our former senator made earmarks a dirty word in Washington, and they abolished the process. And what happened?
Well, it took Charleston a decade to get its harbor dredged. And, with no political chits to trade, members of Congress turned even more of their attention to fighting dubious, partisan ideological battles ... and nothing much gets done in Washington.
South Carolina doesn't need to emulate that system. We've got trains to keep running.