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SC Senators Hear Rules on Spending $2.5B In Federal Relief

South Carolina-Pandemic Money
Jeffrey Collins/AP
South Carolina Sen. Ross Turner, R-Greenville, speaks at a Senate subcommittee discussing how to spend the state's $2.5 billion share of federal COVID-19 relief money on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. Lawmakers hope to finalize the spending plan in a special session this fall. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

Just a little more than a month after figuring out how to spend $11 billion in this year's state budget, South Carolina senators are starting to talk about how to spend $2.5 billion more of federal COVID-19 relief.

The Senate subcommittee coming up with its own spending plan met for the first time Tuesday and heard the rules and limitations on how the money can be spent.

They also heard a world of possibilities — fixing water and sewer problems or extending service, giving government employees a pandemic bonus, making up for a budget shortfall caused by the economic shutdown or improving public health.

There are things the money can't be used for, including decreasing taxes, shoring up pensions, and legal settlements or infrastructure outside water, sewer and broadband internet. Then there are gray areas: Would a new fire truck or police car fit in the rules? If a government used money it saved to pay its bills during the pandemic, how strict is the rule against using the money to replenish reserves?

"I think this is a great chance to see how we can invest in the great state of South Carolina," said Republican Sen. Thomas Alexander from Walhalla, who is chairman of the Senate American Rescue Plan Act Subcommittee.

A number of different programs are sending money to the state, county and municipal governments. Some of the local officials have money they can already spend.

But the 254 municipalities in South Carolina with fewer than 50,000 people are waiting for their share of $435 million set aside by the federal government. Rules require the state to officially ask for the state and smaller town money to be released, and Gov. Henry McMaster has said he is waiting until closer to the planned fall General Assembly's special session to finalize how to spend the billions.

South Carolina is only one of seven states that haven't asked for the money.

Representatives for the municipalities said many have been discussing plans on how to spend the aid money for months.

They must spend it by late 2024, which seems like a long time, but all 317 city and county governments across the state — and so many more across the region — will be competing for a limited number of professionals and crews to do the work, Municipal Association of South Carolina Executive Director Todd Glover said.

"There's going to be a lot of competition for engineers and contractors," Glover said.

The state isn't intentionally dragging its feet getting the money. Instead, they are carefully planning how to spend it and making sure states and cities don't spend on the same things, South Carolina Department of Administration Executive Director Marcia Adams said.

"How can we take this money both at the state and local level and actually multiply the benefit?" Adams said.

Senators also suggested discussions among lawmakers about creating a match program where state money could be shared with municipalities on certain projects like broadband for rural areas or better sewer systems.

"We have a huge opportunity in South Carolina. Instead of acting independently as municipalities, counties, whatever —- slow down a little bit and we can possible supersize this stuff," said Sen. Ross Turner, a Republican from Greenville.

The 17 cities in South Carolina with more than 50,000 people and all 46 counties can get their share of about $1 billion in federal pandemic money now.
Worries about whether smaller cities are ready and capable to handle a sudden influx of cash into their budgets are overblown, said Steve Pelissier, executive director of the Appalachian Council of Governments.

They have been calling his regional group for months seeking advice so they don't waste money or break federal rules, he said.

"They want to do good things. They don't want to end up in the newspaper and they don't want to have to give the money back," Pelissier said.

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