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Editorial: Just when you thought the problem with SC earmarks couldn't get worse

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Senate powwow (copy) (copy)

Sen. Dick Harpootlian talks with Sens. Vincent Sheheen, John Matthews and Nikki Setzler during a Senate debate in September on the state budget. Mr. Harpootlian has been leading a crusade to force more openness about budget earmarks. Seanna Adcox/Staff

You remember earmarks — those government appropriations that fund special lawmakers’ special projects.

They aren’t allocated based on population or need or any measure of worthiness; if they were, they wouldn’t be earmarks. Government budget writers add them to the budget for the purpose of securing enough votes to pass the budget, and keep government from shutting down.

Some of the earmarks fund worthy projects. Others don’t. Oftentimes it’s a combination: They fund worthy projects that really aren’t the job of taxpayers statewide to fund. Nearly always, they’re projects that aren’t crucial — a city park here, a parking lot there.

And which legislators get their earmark card punched and how big the earmark is depends on how much budget writers need their votes. If you think it feels a lot like bribery, funded with our tax dollars, you’re not alone.

Despite the uncomfortable feel, some pragmatists defend earmarks as a necessary lubricant for a well-functioning legislative body, and in fact it’s possible that there’s a correlation between the Congress’ increasing inability in recent years to keep government operating and the congressional ban on earmarks.

But of course South Carolina’s Legislature manages to take things to extremes, and earmarks are no different, because as The Post and Courier’s Seanna Adcox has reported over the years, South Carolina’s earmarks are even more of an assault on good government practices than most. They’re so secretive that even other legislators don’t know who’s getting them until after they vote for the budget — if then.

So it might surprise people to learn that the recipients of the Legislature’s secret earmarks are required by law to file a report detailing how they plan to spend the money and then another report detailing how they actually spent it. What shouldn’t surprise anyone is that the state inspector general’s review has found that the recipients of the secret earmarks are disregarding the reporting requirements.

It shouldn’t be a surprise either that some of the recipients keep getting more grants despite not complying on previous grants, because the Legislature hasn’t given state agencies any way to enforce the law that requires them to file a report by the end of the fiscal year showing “how the funds were spent and the outcome measures used to determine the success of the stated goals.”

That shouldn’t surprise anyone either, since one point of earmarks is to avoid the kind of accountability that the reports are supposed to inject. If we were cynical, we’d say the reporting requirements were window dressing, dreamed up by earmark supporters to try to suppress opposition.

In a Dec. 11 letter to Gov. Henry McMaster and Sen. Dick Harpootlian, State Inspector General Brian Lamkin reports that just 43 of the 160 local governments, churches, nonprofits and businesses that received legislative earmarks in 2018-19 and 2019-20 complied with the reporting requirements in the state budget.

(Those 160 organizations, Mr. Lamkin reports, received a total of $43 million in state funding over the two years — with $15.7 million of that going to 27 entities that received earmarks both years.)

Mr. Harpootlian, the pot-stirrer who requested the review, told Ms. Adcox that state agencies should refuse to distribute the money to organizations that don’t comply with the reporting requirements.

House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith told her that state agencies should have notified the Legislature that the reports weren’t being filed.

They’re both right. And they both ignore what every state agency director knows, and what both of them know: Any agency that did that would put itself at great risk of being punished by the Legislature. The fact is that the process will remain secretive and unaccountable unless and until the Legislature decides it should be otherwise.

The good news is that Mr. Smith and Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman both told Ms. Adcox that they will ensure that the process is transparent this coming year.

Of course, the COVID recession will force the Legislature to use one-time funds — the usual source for earmarks — on actual needs. Perhaps even filling holes to avoid cutting agency budgets.

Or at least it should. Against that backdrop, adding transparency to earmarks is nice but insufficient. Until lawmakers can demonstrate that they have funded all of our statewide needs, they must demand that there be no earmarks at all.

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