The most dramatic action S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster took against the Legislature’s earmark culture was putting an end to the hand-delivered checks. Henceforth, the governor declared in an executive order signed late last month, state agencies will send earmarked funds directly to the charities and local governments specified in the state budget rather than printing checks for the recipients’ legislative patrons to deliver personally.
It’s a good change that should have come sooner and that became impossible to argue against after The Post and Courier’s Avery Wilks discovered that at least one legislator had withheld $125,000 worth of checks for months without authority and for reasons that we can only imagine — and that we can’t imagine were honorable.
But the governor’s other changes could turn out to be even more significant. And when you combine them with changes the Legislature has made in response to three years of complaints from Mr. McMaster and our editorial staff and revelations by reporters from The Post and Courier and Columbia’s State newspaper, we’re witnessing the demise of the secretive spending on hand-selected recipients that has been central to S.C. budget writing for decades.
That's not to say we're witnessing the demise of earmarks. The Legislature will probably never get out of the business of sending our tax dollars to nonprofits and local governments for specific projects. And maybe it shouldn’t. But today we know more than ever about who’s requesting and receiving the money. And Executive Order 2022-19 means we’ll soon know more still.
The earmark culture was already becoming politically toxic, because the more you understand it, the more untenable it seems. It was dealt a severe blow last year when earmark kingpin Hugh Leatherman passed away and was replaced as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee by Harvey Peeler, who was able to slash what likely would have been record earmark spending this year by insisting on sending taxpayers $1 billion of the one-time money that otherwise could have funded legislative pork. Without such a central champion in the Senate, reformers were able to solidify tentative gains from the past two years and create an opening for Mr. McMaster’s order.
The order gives cover to state agencies that had been afraid of legislative retribution if they enforced state laws requiring recipients to file reports before and after receiving the money. Critically, it also requires the agencies to file real-time details on their websites about the programs and recipients.
Ironically, the biggest earmark Mr. McMaster vetoed was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Dick Harpootlian, who together with Republican Sens. Wes Climer and Shane Massey led the legislative push for earmark transparency. But Mr. Harpootlian had always insisted that his objection was to the secrecy, not the spending, and when the veto of a $25 million plan to create a quantum computing center in Columbia’s Five Points neighborhood got to the House floor, everybody knew who had asked for it. And they sustained the veto.
For his part, Mr. Harpootlian complained that he didn’t have an opportunity to explain the proposal, which of course he would have been able to do if he had filed legislation to create the program rather than simply asking for an earmark.
And that’s the other problem with earmarks: Even when we know who sponsors them, and who is to receive them, we rarely have a real debate on their merits. At least we don’t now. That’s the next thing we need to change.
Well, that and putting the governor’s executive order into state law, so the next governor can’t wipe it out and send us back into top-secret spending, where even legislators don’t know what’s in the budget bill, much less who asked to put it there.