Stimulus questions remain

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford

COLUMBIA — The state is in a time crunch, and if legislators don't get some key questions resolved ASAP, steep college tuition increases are likely around the corner, teacher layoffs would be imminent and a great number of government services would be shut down.

South Carolina's proposed $6.6 billion budget is in limbo as an April 3 deadline approaches to have Gov. Mark Sanford request federal stimulus funds. The Republican governor already said he would not be asking for the money after President Obama denied his request to use it to pay down debt, but now legislators are getting anxious about the consequences that could come with Sanford's decision.

Originally, House and Senate budget writers were banking on a provision Congress inserted in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that would allow the Legislature to accept the money that the governor rejected. In recent days, however, questions have been raised about whether that provision will stand.

"Does he have the ultimate veto over this? And if he does, we need to settle this now," said Senate leader Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston.

McConnell said state Attorney General Henry McMaster could respond to McConnell's letter seeking clarity on the issue as early as today.

The provision has two problems. The first is procedural and deals with future involvement the governor would need to have in order to draw down the federal money. The second is the provision's constitutional issues as it pertains to the relationship between the federal government, the governor and the Legislature.

The state's budget, which is set to begin July 1, is based on about a billion dollars in federal stimulus money.

Congress intended South Carolina to use the $700 million to carry its fiscal year 2009-10 and 2010-11 budgets through the deepening recession.

Sanford adamantly opposed the stimulus package and argued that the state would be in much worse shape in two years if it depended on that money.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said that he is drafting a letter to ask the governor to reconsider his position. South Carolina taxpayers will be responsible for paying back the stimulus money whether the state uses it or not, he said.

Teacher positions and college tuition increases are among what's at stake, Leatherman said. The early release of prisoners could also become a possibility if the state can't properly fund the Department of Corrections.

On Wednesday, the presidents of the state's three largest research universities — the Medical University of South Carolina, University of South Carolina and Clemson University — all told Senate budget writers they'd be devastated without the cash as they decide how much they'll need to raise tuition in the upcoming budget year.

In the meantime, Leatherman said he has instructed the Senate Finance Committee to prepare two versions of the budget, one that uses the stimulus money and one that does not. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said the House will be doing the same.

Sanford press secretary Joel Sawyer said it is time for legislators to sit down with the governor and come up with a budget plan to pay down state debt.

"So far, they've not indicated a willingness to do so," Sawyer said. Leatherman said the governor has not reached out to him.