COLUMBIA — Gov. Mark Sanford said Thursday that he is trying to use the court to tell the Legislature to back off and respect South Carolina's balance of power.

Tied up, though, in this fight is $350 million that the Legislature wants used to help public schools and public safety programs sustain services through the recession. The $350 million is part of $700 million in state budget aid included in the federal stimulus package.

When the new $5.7 billion budget takes affect July 1, state government will still be operational. Lead budget writers said they put the $350 million in a separate section of the budget in the event that it was challenged in court.

Sanford said he filed the suit late Wednesday to pre-empt a suit he expected to be filed against him. The governor is refusing to draw down the federal stimulus cash despite an edict by the Legislature that attempted to force him to do so.

The disputed money is only a portion of stimulus cash in South Carolina that is in question. The state could receive a total of $2.8 billion for government programs over the next two years, which could grow to $8 billion when tax breaks and grants are factored in.

Sanford said he would only take the $700 million — to be divided over two years in equal $350 million installments — if the Legislature used an equal portion of state cash to pay down debt.

The governor said he still wants to negotiate with the Legislature. Sanford said he would drop his suit if Congress bypasses him and deposits the money directly in state coffers, which is an effort underway now.

Sanford said the Legislature's action sets a dangerous precedent for future South Carolina governors and has implications for governors across the country. He said their action would set precedent for other legislatures to disregard their governors' directives in administering federal programs.

The suit was filed in federal court and state Attorney General Henry McMaster is named as the defendant.

"Filing this suit is the last thing we want to be doing, but our hand has been forced on this front and letting these actions stand would be both a disservice to taxpayers and set a terrible precedent for future governorships," Sanford said in a statement. "This is about two fundamental principles, one of which is the principle of separation of powers, something our Founding Fathers thought absolutely key to a well-functioning democracy. If a Legislature in this state or any other has the ability to arbitrarily change the terms of federal law, then why even have governors? Two, this is ultimately about protecting not just this generation of taxpayers but future generations as well, which is why we've pushed for putting stimulus money toward debt repayment."

This is the last day scheduled in regular session. Immediately following Sanford's announcement the state Senate went into executive session. It is not clear if that is related to the suit.

Read more in Friday's editions of The Post and Courier.