After Mark Sanford hauled defecating piglets up the ornate Statehouse staircase to the House chamber in a made-for-TV protest of all that spending on local festivals and community programs that he had vetoed and the Legislature had reinstated without so much as reading his veto letter, the pork went underground.
Rather than spelling out who got money in the state budget, as lawmakers had always done until Mr. Sanford came along and protested, the Legislature created “pass-throughs” — adding money to selected agencies’ budgets with no hint about how it was to be spent. After the budget passed, a legislative staffer would deliver spending instructions orally to each agency whose budget was used as a temporary holding bin.
Freshman Sen. Dick Harpootlian wants to put an end to this secretive practice that greases South Carolina's budgeting wheels.
One year, then-Ways and Means Chairman Dan Cooper taunted Mr. Sanford for months about the firetruck he had hidden in the budget; the governor never found it, and the money was delivered to one of Mr. Cooper’s local fire departments.
Mr. Sanford responded to the hidden local projects by ordering his Cabinet agencies to stop funding pass-throughs that weren’t spelled out in the budget. The Legislature responded to Mr. Sanford’s response by creating a “competitive grants” program. Except that’s not what it really was. It was really a slush fund, ostensibly administered by a legislatively controlled panel and with absolutely no criteria, that doled out tens of millions of dollars to a mixture of worthy and unworthy projects, from soccer fields and walking trails to kidneys (seriously), graffiti abatement and festivals of every imaginable variety. What the funded programs had in common was a legislative “sponsor.”
The cat-and-mouse games continued throughout the Sanford and Haley administrations, and now a very different sort of governor is in a similar battle, thankfully without the rancor of its predecessor, and complete with an ironic twist of terminology.
Last spring, Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed $27 million worth of pass-throughs in the 2019-20 state budget. And of course the Legislature overrode the vetoes. But rather than simply repeating the Sanford cycle, Mr. McMaster tried to craft a compromise that would meet his desire for transparency and merit while also meeting legislators’ desire for funding for local programs. The 2020-21 budget plan he unveiled Monday sends $23 million to the same agencies that lawmakers used last year for pass-throughs, but instead of going to unwritten but predetermined recipients of legislators’ choosing, the agencies would create — here’s the irony — “competitive grant” programs to distribute it.
The budget proposal explains that “organizations, festivals, tournaments and other standard recipients of earmarked dollars will apply for these grants,” and money will be awarded through a very public merit-based process established by each agency director.
This is significantly different from the Legislature’s uncompetitive grants program, because it won’t be controlled by legislative leaders. But that’s precisely why it won’t accomplish what Mr. McMaster wants it to accomplish. And as a result, it will add even more wasteful spending to the budget.
SC lawmakers filed bills to speed vote counting, protect our coast from drilling, restrict vaping, reduce secrecy in budgeting and economic incentives, close the revolving door for utility regulators, regulate nurdles, reform magistrate selection and solve other new problems in the 2020 legislative session.
Letting someone other than legislators determine which local governments and nonprofits receive state funding isn’t something legislators see as a compromise, because the whole point is to be able to deliver state funding to programs back home that they consider important.
The reason most local projects get added to the budget is to persuade hold-out legislators to vote for the budget. As Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman reminded me Thursday when we discussed all the efforts to shut down earmarks: “I have to get a budget passed.”
And while the recipients of Mr. McMaster’s “competitive grants” might be more worthy than the ones legislators hand pick, essentially he’s saying to a handful of state agencies: Here’s a bunch of money; go find some people who want to spend it. As opposed to what we ought to be saying: Here’s money to accomplish these goals; if you need to contract with a nonprofit or local government to get the job done, that’s fine.
Summerville’s ARK House was among the winners of South Carolina's budget lottery this year. Despite the good work of ARK and other budget winners, the Legislature should stop this sort of minimally scrutinized spending.
As distasteful as I find it, legislative budget writers are always going to find a way to dole out a little state money as needed to round up the votes to pass the budget. As they demonstrated throughout the Sanford and Haley administrations.
So rather than dreaming up all these new ways to replace that system, our best bet is probably to get legislators to go back to the pre-Sanford process of putting each project directly into the budget.
At least we’ll know precisely what we’re getting for our money.
Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Facebook or Twitter @cindiscoppe.