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Editorial: SC Legislature must act quickly, openly on federal COVID-19 relief funds

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Gary Clary (copy)

S.C. Rep. Gary Clary talks to House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith during the final day of the regular legislative session on May 12. Lawmakers need to return soon to appropriate $2 billion in federal coronavirus spending. Seanna Adcox/Staff

When Congress sent nearly $2 billion to South Carolina through the Coronavirus Relief Fund, the idea was to get the money out quickly to state and local government agencies that were taking on huge unexpected expenses because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As former state Sen. Greg Ryberg reminded the governor’s accelerateSC task force on Tuesday: “They’ve already spent the money, and some of it two months ago, and some of them don’t have the luxury of deep pockets.”

Of course quick and smart don’t often go hand in hand when it comes to spending large sums of public money, and Mr. Ryberg and other volunteers appointed by Gov. Henry McMaster to help guide the reopening of South Carolina’s economy have already spent more than a month putting together a plan that directs half the money to four items: replenishing the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, reimbursing public and private hospitals, providing five additional days of instruction at the start of the next school year and building a statewide broadband network.

After Mr. McMaster signs off on the plan, which he hopes to do this week, it’ll go to the Legislature for approval, or rejection, or modification.

Legislators had voted tentatively in early April to let the governor determine how to divvy up the money himself, subject to review by a small group of legislative leaders. In mid-May, lawmakers voted to distribute the money themselves, like they do with the state’s annual spending plan.

That’s perfectly appropriate; the state constitution clearly gives the Legislature the job of appropriating money that comes into the state treasury, regardless of its source. But coming so late in the process, it inevitably will delay the money reaching its intended recipients — and potentially worse.

The Legislature typically spends six months writing the state’s $10 billion spending plan, only about $2 billion of which changes from year to year. Along the way, legislative leaders insert special little appropriations requested by individual lawmakers — often obscured from public view and sometimes even from most legislators, and in not a few cases directed to organizations with close ties to the legislators who requested the money.

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In theory, the lengthy timeline makes sense, even if the pork doesn’t. It gives the public a chance to weigh in on the state’s spending priorities and gives lawmakers time to carefully consider how best to spend a tremendous amount of money. But lawmakers can’t take that kind of time with the coronavirus relief money, and because of the federal rules that accompany the money, they certainly can’t dole it out like party favors in order to secure votes.

As Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith told the House last week: “This is not like the FEMA account money. They advance you the money, you spend it according to the guidelines, and if you don’t, you have to pay it back.”

The rules are so complex, and so frequently changing, in fact, that the Legislature authorized the state to hire a special consultant to make sure all the spending stays within the federal requirements. That, almost by definition, demonstrates the folly of trying to apply normal legislative budget-writing tactics.

So we’re glad to hear legislative leaders pledging to return to work quickly to adopt the coronavirus budget. We also need them to comply with the governor’s request that their work be done not just quickly but “also wisely, transparently and with meticulous accountability.” This is no time for lawmakers to be playing their usual legislative games.

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