(The Center Square) – South Carolina senators have endorsed a five-page list of 90 spending requests assembled by the Senate Finance Committee from proposals submitted by 37 of 46 members, collectively totaling more than $100 million.
The appropriation requests, called earmarks, are for local projects ranging from boat ramps and parks to festivals and lighthouse repairs. The Senate approved the earmarks, 41-5, this week.
Earmarks traditionally were listed in aggregate with little detail about the expenditure and who requested it. The Senate, however, required in January listing in detail any earmark not requested by a state agency with the name of the sponsor.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, who spearheaded the earmark transparency effort, said the rule “is the first step in change” but the lure of federal money is spurring overreach in bringing home the bacon.
Massey filed a failed motion to remove all earmarks and about $1.3 billion in project spending from the budget, with such allocations vetted during the special session.
“I think (the motion) will lead to debate on earmarks,” Massey said. “My suspicion is it will lead to people squirming in their seats and maybe some unpleasant conversations because of it.”
Looking through the five-page list of earmarks, Massey said, “Most of the ones in there I don’t like. I’m disappointed by all the pork. I’m glad we’re disclosing them now. But it’s a dirty process.”
Senate Finance Committee Chair Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, chastised Massey for his motion.
“Surely the senator from Edgefield is not against providing nursing homes for veterans,” Leatherman said. “Maybe he misspoke when he talked about that.”
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said lawmakers are obligated to seek funding for projects important to their constituents that state agencies overlook.
“That ought to be honored and not called something dirty,” Davis said.
Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, said earmarks offer lawmakers representing rural South Carolina communities a way to draw state money, such as a $15 million earmark he co-sponsored to renovate the Sumter Opera House.
“I understand why folks would raise their eyebrows,” McElveen said. “Any request I put in is good for my constituents. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest. There should be criticism. We need to be accountable.”
The Senate Finance Committee’s $1.3 billion project list, which includes the $100 million in local project earmarks and spending requests from state agencies, allocates $50 million to upgrade and expand two veterans nursing homes. Other proposed project allocations include:
• $40 million to improve highway rest areas;
• $32 million to boost the state’s prepaid college tuition plan;
• $20 million for promoting tourism;
• $19 million each to convention center expansions in Greenville and Columbia;
• $7 million to help trim pandemic-induced court backlogs;
• $5 million to improve state Capitol security;
• $1.5 million to finish a Sumter greenway;
• $750,000 for New Morning Foundation, which distributes free birth control to women to reduce unwanted pregnancies;
• $300,000 for a boat ramp in Greenwood County;
• $250,000 for an archaeology project in Winyah Bay, where a short-lived Spanish colony was founded in 1526;
• $200,000 to provide field laptops to state National Guard attorneys;
• $50,000 for the Black Cowboy Festival in Rembert;
• $25,000 to the Phillis Wheatley Community Center in Greenville.
The earmarks are part of the proposed $30 billion fiscal year 2022 spending plan. Budget conferencing between the House and Senate is scheduled to begin Tuesday.
The proposed fiscal 2022 budget, House Bill 4100, which includes $9.8 billion in state revenue allocations, must be delivered to Gov. Henry McMaster by May 13 and signed before it goes into effect July 1.
Regardless of how next week’s budget conferences go, lawmakers expect to return to Columbia before July 1 for a special session after revised revenue updates produced a $1.7 billion “windfall.”
The South Carolina Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) revealed April 8 the state collected $385.8 million in “new” recurring money, more than the $182.8 million it forecast in November.
The BEA also projected the state has a $646 million unspent “surplus” in the current fiscal year, meaning about $1.3 billion in “one-time” money is available for next fiscal year.
The budget approved by the House on March 24 does not incorporate BEA’s update, nor does it include $2.1 billion in federal assistance from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan or $525 million South Carolina will collect from a Savannah River Site settlement.
Therefore, there could be nearly $4 billion available for lawmakers to make one-time allocations during the regular session or in the special session.