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$150M in Local Projects Returned to South Carolina's $11B Budget

Murrell Smith South Carolina Budget Vetoes 06-29-21
Jeffrey Collins/AP
South Carolina House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, responds to senators who say the House hid pet projects in their budget on Tuesday, June 29, 2021 in Columbia S.C. Smith said the allegation offended him and called the Senate a "clown show" for not checking with House members first before making the allegations. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina lawmakers wasted little time returning more than $150 million in local projects into the state budget after the governor removed the items through his vetoes last week.

The House and Senate overrode 10 of Gov. Henry McMaster's 15 vetoes during a special session Tuesday. The House took less than an hour, while the Senate took just over an hour.

The state's nearly $11 billion spending plan for the next fiscal year starts Thursday. It includes raises for a wide swath of state employees, from teachers to troopers. It also has money to repair college buildings, construct rural schools and offer 4-year-old kindergarten for all at-risk children in South Carolina.

The 15 vetoes were the least number McMaster has exercised in any of the four budgets he has received from the legislature since he became governor in 2017. Six of them concerned money meant for 226 different local projects, such as help for local festivals hurt by COVID-19; body cameras and armored vehicles for local police agencies; and money without a specific purpose given to small towns.

Individual lawmakers suggest the projects, which are then grouped together and voted on by the whole General Assembly. Some of them were projects McMaster wanted for himself, but the governor said Friday after issuing his vetoes that since he could not unbundle them, he had to veto the entire package.

McMaster suggested that instead of giving lawmakers the power to control the money, it should be put into one pot for a public grant process and awarded by merit, with the entire system open for transparency.

But state Sen. Tom Davis, chief of staff for former Gov. Mark Sanford, who supported a similar spending committee more than a decade ago, said that kind of method is less transparent than the current system, under which a project is made public and linked to a legislator and voters can decide if that lawmaker stays in office.

“It’s your job to stand up here and if you feel passionately about something, make the argument," Davis said, saying the projects got a bad name back when Sanford was in office because lawmakers hid them or traded them for other votes.

Also, the Legislature controls spending under the state constitution, said Davis, a Republican from Beaufort.

“I don’t trust the process because it hasn’t worked in the past,” Davis said.

Senators overrode the 10 vetoes they were sent from the House in about 80 minutes.

Lawmakers had little discussion before voting. House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith reminded them they approved all of the spending earlier this month when they OKed the budget that was sent to the governor and some of it came from McMaster himself when he made his spending suggestions in January.

"None of this is new to what you have seen," said Smith, a Republican from Sumter “All of this are requests that were suggested by the governor or suggested by members."

No lawmakers asked Smith questions before the 15 votes, which took 53 minutes.

The House did sustain five of McMaster's vetoes, including one that called for allowing colleges and universities to come up with their own system for accepting students into teaching programs. House leaders said that should be done in a bill, not in a temporary budget provision.

The $10.8 billion budget is nearly $2 billion bigger than the 2020 spending plan in which lawmakers decided to just save up the extra money for the year as a hedge in case tax revenues plunged during the pandemic.

But instead the state did better than expected and lawmakers found hundreds of ways to spend the one-time money on pedestrian bridges, senior centers, new local law enforcement buildings and police cars, convention center repairs and upgrades, the Special Olympics, a hearse for a veterans cemetery, baseball field and recreation facilities and hundreds of other projects.

The spending plan considered by the governor does not include the $2.5 billion that lawmakers will control of the nearly $9 billion South Carolina is getting from federal COVID-19 relief. McMaster already has a committee considering recommendations to spend that money, and the General Assembly plans a special session to finalize plans in a few months.

The 2021-22 fiscal year budget does include a $1,000 raise for teachers, a 2.5% raise for all state employees, and raises for a number of state law enforcement officers.


Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.