COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed more than $56 million in spending included in the state's budget for next year, while using his pen to restore the state Commission on Higher Education's authority to vet new building projects on university campuses.
The governor's budget vetoes come less than a week after members of the South Carolina House and Senate passed a roughly $8 billion budget and voted in support of language that would have stripped the college regulator of its ability to review big-ticket projects, including new multi-million dollar football stadiums. Colleges protested what they consider overregulation of their projects, which are reviewed by two other panels of elected officials.
McMaster served on the commission from 1991 to 1994, and more recently made $492,000 helping to raise money for the recently completed $80 million law school at the University of South Carolina.
"If the government is going to ask the taxpayers to contribute more of their hard-earned dollars, we must have greater oversight and discipline in government spending — not less," McMaster said.
McMaster, who ascended to the governorship earlier this year after Nikki Haley left to become the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, announced Monday that he would also be using his newfound authority to limit the ability of South Carolina counties to spend state road funding for things other than pavement.
By canceling out a section of the budget that allowed no more than 20 percent of the state funding given to County Transportation Committees to be spent on other infrastructure initiatives, McMaster said increasing gas tax revenues will have to be spent on paving projects.
"South Carolinians deserve to have every cent of the gas tax spent on road improvements," said McMaster, who opposed increasing the state's gas tax to pay for roads for the first time since 1987.
The governor and his staff also zeroed out millions of dollars in spending that only would have occurred if the state's lottery and unclaimed prize funds collect more money than expected over the next year.
Much of that spending — roughly $20.5 million — would have gone to replacing aging school buses in South Carolina. Lawmakers had included $28.9 million for school buses in the budget, which means $8.4 million remains in the general revenue fund if McMaster's vetoes are upheld.
The Governor's Office said McMaster is concerned about the state's aging school bus fleet but that taking any surpluses from lottery proceeds is not the way to pay for those buses. Earlier in the year, McMaster stymied a nearly $500 million bond bill that would have allowed the state to borrow $30 million for school buses, after he called on lawmakers to borrow $1 billion for roads instead.
Monday's budget vetoes were an opportunity for McMaster, a Republican who has spent most of his time as governor fighting the gas tax increase, to show that he was serious about cutting unwanted spending.
Lawmakers can come back to Columbia to override McMaster's veto by a two-thirds vote each in the House and Senate. The General Assembly has not announced when it will return. Legislators could wait until the new session starts in January, meaning money earmarked in any vetoes remains in limbo until a vote is taken. The new budget year starts July 1.
The budget veto season has been a rite of passage for governors in South Carolina. A pair of recent Republicans in office, Haley and Mark Sanford, who is now a congressman, took pride in striking out state spending that was approved by state lawmakers.
During Haley's reign from 2011 and 2016, she cut on average $77 million from the budget, including her first year when she slashed $213 million from the general revenue fund.
In the latest vetoes, McMaster chose to restore $16 million in funding for the state's Conservation Bank, which spends money to set aside land in South Carolina as parts of the state continue to develop rapidly.
Some lawmakers have wanted to disband the conservation bank altogether after a Legislative Audit Council report that found the agency overpays for properties and commits money for future years before the Legislature even assigns that money.
The Governor's Office said that McMaster restored the funding to the conservation bank because he believes the budget bill was the wrong place to decide whether the agency should continue to exist.