The embattled State Conservation Bank might just be saved by a S.C. House compromise giving it less money and more responsibilities.
The bill passed the Ways and Means committee on Wednesday and will be on the calendar for a full House vote next week.
The bank uses public money to fund land-easement protections for landmark sites such as the iconic Angel Oak on Johns Island.
The legislation takes away the bank’s dedicated stream of money from a tax on property transfers. But it establishes an agency to run the bank, similar to other state agencies, that must request funds through the state budget.
The bill also eliminates the “death clause” that would dissolve the bank if its funding dropped to zero. It also removes the bank’s sunset clause so it wouldn't have to be reauthorized periodically by the Legislature.
"I'm very happy with (the bill)," said Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, the bank’s main legislative advocate since its inception. He's optimistic it will pass the House, he said.
The Senate might tweak the bill but will work with House members on that, he said.
"I'm very pleased we're working together and not in opposition on it," Campsen added.
The Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League supports the compromise bill, said Emily Cedzo, the league's land, water and wildlife program director. The league had been a major proponent of the bank.
Committee member Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence, said legislators intend to budget the bank between $10 million and $11 million for the next fiscal year.
That would slash its current $13 million funding. The funding level already has been reduced by the Legislature from $22 million at its height.
The Legislature may eventually again fund the bank through deed stamps, but the bank basically has to earn that, Lowe said, by proving to legislators it is spending the money wisely and has fixed problems laid out in the Legislative Audit Council.
The bank has been opposed by some legislators because a share of property transfer fees funds it. Some lawmakers also have objected to the bank's work because some public payments go toward properties the general public can't access.
Another requirement in the compromise bill would require it to use some funds to improve conserved land for public access.
The bank was created in 2004 in the wake of "takings" controversies over the acquisition of public lands. Using a public-private approach that includes paying for conservation easements on private land, the bank has protected more than 300,000 acres since its start.
But it was rocked by the legislative budget cuts and was on the verge of the "death clause" taking effect during 2017 deliberations on reauthorizing it because of a controversy over a delayed transfer of $3 million from the bank to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
The delay led to a legislative audit and a later audit ordered by Gov. Henry McMaster. The probes found no fraud or misuse of funds, but did find a number of basic accounting deficiencies that included poor money management. As the probes were underway, new bank officers were appointed and they are now revamping its practices.
Along with Angel Oak, the conserved acres include historic Morris Island at the edge of Charleston Harbor, as well as land in the vast ACE Basin south of Charleston and on the Blue Ridge Escarpment in the mountains at the North Carolina line.