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SC senator puts brakes on Carolina Panthers incentives: 'No idea what we're voting for'

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Dick Harpootlian

Dick Harpootlian 

COLUMBIA — Incentives to lure the proposed $150 million Carolina Panthers complex to South Carolina have been blocked by a state senator who wants more information about the project.

"I knew more when I bought my new office copy machine than I do about this deal," state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, said.

Harpootlian placed an objection that prevents the Senate from voting on a bill that would offer up to $115 million in tax breaks to the Panthers to move its team headquarters and practice fields across the North Carolina border from Charlotte.

The Columbia attorney said he wants to better understand the benefits and costs of luring the NFL team's operations to South Carolina as lawmakers work quickly to get the incentives through the Statehouse.

The Senate and House introduced separate incentive bills on the same day two weeks ago right after Panthers owner David Tepper met with Gov. Henry McMaster and legislative leaders at the Governor's Mansion. The S.C. House gave final approval to the incentives Thursday. 

Project supporters, including McMaster and House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, have said they expect hotels, stores and residences to spring up around the Panthers complex. 

But the team wants to extend a runway at a York County airport and build an interchange on Interstate 77. McMaster has also talked about extending Charlotte's commuter rail line into York County.

All of that work would cost an unknown amount of state money, Harpootlian said.  

"If anyone objects to what I did, I have four words for them: Base Load Review Act," Harpootlian said referring to the 2007 law that allowed S.C. Electric & Gas to charge customers more than $4 billion for a nuclear project that it eventually abandoned a decade later.

"We have no idea what we're voting for," he said. "I want something in writing."

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Harpootlian said he wants to know more about the likelihood that the Panthers complex will draw other businesses, even suggesting a study by retail development experts. He plans to withdraw his objection once he learns more.

"I get BMW. I get Volvo. I get Boeing. They produce a product," he said, referring to three manufacturers that received millions in incentives to open plants in South Carolina. "This is a practice field."

The Panthers plan to have 150 employees, including players and coaches, at the complex with a $190 million annual payroll, state leaders said. The Panthers have not said anything publicly about the project after the meeting the Governor's Mansion. They have no plans to play games in South Carolina. 

Sen. Wes Climer, a Rock Hill Republican whose district could land the complex, said he favors more transparency in the highly publicized deal, and he does not blame Harpootlian for wanting more details.

Climer said he saw an economic analysis from the S.C. Department of Commerce this week that showed the state would profit from new jobs and increased taxes after paying economic incentives.

"It's a huge win," Climer said.

The Commerce Department declined to release the analysis.

With Harpootian's objection halting the Senate bill on the incentives, the Senate could try to pass the House's version of the bill. The House bill was sent to the Senate Finance Committee this week.

Harpootlian said he would stop the House bill as well unless more project data is shared, adding, "I'm not going to blindly vote on this."

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