By HANNAH HILL
‘This congressman is still in Washington . . . I’ll just stop at that’
Last week, the Department of Transportation Commission voted to spend $21.5 million of federal money on a list of projects associated with Congressman Jim Clyburn.
The commission-approved project list looks very different from DOT’s road project priority list, however. It includes, for example, $11.5 million for a Main Street revitalization project in Sumter and around $360,000 for pedestrian facilities in Anderson – neither of which are even on DOT’s priority list.
That’s somewhat surprising, since one of the few things lawmakers seemed to agree on during the 2016 session was the need for road funding to align with an objective priority list. The roads bill finally passed by the legislature included a gesture toward prioritization by requiring the STIB to run all loan decisions by the DOT commission and to follow Act 114 criteria for road funding decisions.
Even more significant than the prioritization issue, however, is what the decision says about the state’s reliance on federal dollars. Most of these dollars were leftover budget earmark funds secured years ago by Congressman Clyburn (a practice now banned in Congress). How those funds are allocated is entirely up to the DOT Commission.
Why weren’t the funds spent on high-priority projects?
Commissioner Gene Branham explained: “I know this is earmarked money, but this Congressman is still in Washington, and we’re probably going to ask for more federal money down the line somewhere. And I’ll just stop at that.”
The key consideration, in other words, wasn’t the needs of the state’s infrastructure. It was – according to Branham – to curry favor with a longtime U.S. congressman and therefore keep federal money coming to South Carolina.
Commission chairman Mike Wooden added: “This isn’t our money. We didn’t go to Washington and lobby to get these earmarks, so it’s not our money, from my perspective … And I think for us to reach in that grab bag and grab it for our use, for the use for the state on priority projects, is wrong.”
He went on to say that he “would love to take every penny of that and apply it to the highest priorities on bridges, road paving, and that sort of thing, but philosophically we didn’t lobby for that money.” (Click here to view the entire discussion.)
Any projects these earmarked funds go to must have a 20 percent local match, which means that local funds that could be used to repair roads will now be diverted to what is evidently Congressman Clyburn’s own priority list. That means when the funds are accepted, state policies and state money usually have to be changed or redirected as a prerequisite for acceptance.
Whether state lawmakers are even aware that $21 million is available to state roads, and that the money will go to one congressman’s preferred projects, isn’t readily apparent. It seems likely, though, that even if they were aware, most wouldn’t think it’s a big deal.
Hannah Hill is a policy analyst at the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve‘s parent organization.