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SC spent at least $37 million in earmarks last year. Few have a clue where the money went.

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Dick Harpootlian

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia Democrat, is trying to force legislators to be more transparent about their requests for state tax money for local projects. Seanna Adcox/Staff

COLUMBIA — Hidden inside South Carolina's $9 billion state budget are tens of millions in what one state senator calls "shadow" spending.

They include $100,000 to a private family counselor in Charleston, $750,000 toward a planned equestrian and events center in Barnwell County, $100,000 to a church in Berkeley County and $500,000 to extend a walkway in Columbia.

The items — $37 million worth identified so far by The Post and Courier — are impossible to find in the budget. That's because they simply aren't there.

Instead, they're rolled up into chunks of spending described with vague words, like "sports marketing grants," and funneled through state agencies to be doled out to local governments, businesses and nonprofits as directed by the Legislature's budget-writing committees.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said there are "very, very few people, probably only two people in the entire General Assembly who know all this stuff."

Freshman Sen. Dick Harpootlian wants to put an end to this secretive practice that greases South Carolina's budgeting wheels — what he calls the "immaculate appropriations."

On Friday, the Columbia Democrat asked Gov. Henry McMaster to issue an executive order directing his cabinet agencies not to stroke checks for items they didn't request unless the purpose and final recipient are spelled out in the budget.

Harpootlian said he does not intend to stop all local spending from state coffers. But legislators need to justify the spending.

"Why not do it publicly?" he asked.

McMaster's office said the Republican governor will lead by example and give the Legislature a chance to correct its ways before issuing such an order, spokesman Zach Pippin said.

McMaster's budget recommendations, to be released Monday, "will disclose each and every appropriation, amount and destination," Pippin said. The governor's budget also will propose an application and approval process for each agency before spending money on local earmarks.

Harpootlian admits getting one of this year's hidden earmarks — a $400,000 check for upgrading railroad crossings in the city of Columbia so trains don't blare their horns at all hours. He posted a photo of him and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin holding the check on social media.

Harpootlian said Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman offered to help him get quiet crossings if he would stop blocking a vote on the chairman's bill involving tax credits for companies transporting goods from the state's ports.

Harpootlian said he objected to the bill because he does not like railroad companies since they are not responsive to local government concerns about traffic and noise. Leatherman, the state's chief budget writer, offered to match what Columbia was putting into an initiative for quiet crossings. In exchange, Harpootlian removed his objection that held up the ports bill.

"He did get my name off (objecting to the bill), and I got my $400,000," Harpootlian said. 

Harpootlian said he couldn't find the railway money in the state budget document, but Leatherman's office promised it was there.

The two-time state Democratic Party chairman said he was uncharacteristically naive about how the money would flow to the city until the check came. He realized the money came through a Department of Public Safety "local law enforcement" grant.

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The grant was part of $27 million in spending McMaster vetoed that the Legislature overruled.

Then Harpootlian started submitting public records requests to the state agencies funneling the money.

His letter to the governor followed another round of records from the Department of Administration, which identified an additional $10 million of buried earmarks the governor didn't veto. They include $3 million for water and sewer upgrades to seven local governments, $400,000 for school leadership training and $1 million for regional farmers markets.

What most concerned him are the millions going to nonprofits with no accountability.

Harpootlian sent a letter Thursday asking state Inspector General Brian Lamkin to audit what those organizations did with money received through the last two budgets. Lamkin was out of the office Friday and did not respond to an email from The Post and Courier.

Leatherman also was unavailable for comment Friday, his office said. 

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, defended sending money to nonprofits, saying they fill a gap the state's not covering. 

The $2 million in earmarks to nonprofits sent through the Department of Social Services include entities that help victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. 

"We’ve got to remember sometimes when the state fails to meet its obligations, it falls to the nonprofits," Cobb-Hunter, a social worker, said Thursday.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said anyone willing to watch all the budget committee meetings can follow the earmarks.

But budget meetings can take place simultaneously at the Statehouse. 

Even seven months after the latest budget year started, agencies tasked with forwarding earmarks still don't know where to send some of the money. They're waiting for legislators to tell them what to do with it.

As of Friday, for example, the state's Parks, Tourism and Recreation agency still labeled more than $1 million as "to be determined." 

Massey is introducing a resolution that would require senators to disclose their name on any request for money, in writing, that gives the amount and where the money's going. He expects to hold a hearing on the proposal later this month.  

The House already technically has such a rule. 

"From the House’s perspective, transparency is vitally important," said House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, adding there should be a paper trail of how the money's spent. "There’s always room for improvement."   

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

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