June 20, 2024

The Nerve Archive

Where Government Gets Exposed

Senators feast on taxpayer-funded earmarks for pricey projects

SC Senate Chamber

By RICK BRUNDRETT

Through largely hidden budget earmarks, S.C. senators have proposed a total of more than $314 million for projects next fiscal year mainly in their respective legislative districts – including dozens of $1 million-plus requests, a review by The Nerve found.

The 46-member Senate two years ago changed its rules purportedly to require more disclosure of historically secret taxpayer-funded earmarks, but the chamber hasn’t posted online its latest earmark list, though it passed a $38-billion, fiscal year 2023-24 state budget version on April 19.

The Nerve recently obtained the Senate earmark list under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. A separate request under the open-records law was made for any House earmarks; House Clerk Charles Reid in a written response said the 124-member chamber has “no document(s) responsive to your request.”

The new fiscal year starts July 1. The House, which passed its budget version in March, was scheduled today to resume debate on the Senate’s version, though it’s unclear whether House members will agree to the earmarks. Any differences between the chambers’ spending plans would have to be resolved by a joint conference committee.

Under Senate and House rules, earmarks are special funding requests by lawmakers for specific projects or programs that didn’t originate with a written agency budget request or weren’t included in the prior fiscal year’s state appropriations. Senators and House members over the years routinely have sponsored earmarks for their pet projects.

Under a 2021 Senate rule change, before an annual spending bill receives a key second reading, the Senate Finance Committee chairman must attach an earmark “statement” identifying the senator making the request, an explanation of the project or program, and the funding amount. A similar procedure is required for conference committee reports.

But that rule doesn’t specifically require that the earmark list be made readily available to the public. In online budget versions, earmarks often are vaguely worded and are not labeled as earmarks, with no listing of which lawmakers sponsored the requests.

The Nerve for years has reported about the lack of transparency and public input on Senate and House earmarks. The South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – last December published recommendations to improve transparency in S.C. government, including posting earmark requests on the Legislature’s website within 24 hours of the request, noting there is a “significant delay between when earmarks are requested and posted online, and the forms lack important details.”

State Rep. Rob Harris, R-Spartanburg, in February introduced a government-transparency bill mirroring the Policy Council’s recommendations, including the requirement that earmark requests be posted on the Legislature’s website within 24 hours of filing, as The Nerve reported then. The bill has remained stuck in the House Ways and Means Committee.

Bipartisan money grabs

The Nerve’s latest review found that 43 of the Senate’s 46 members – 27 Republicans and 16 Democrats – as well as two Senate Finance subcommittees, collectively made 172 earmark requests totaling $314.4 million. The earmark requests ranged from $9,340 to $55 million; there were 56 earmarks of at least $1 million.

All but one of the Senate Finance Committee’s 23 members sponsored or co-sponsored at least one earmark request. Outside of subcommittee requests, Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, who is the Finance Committee chairman, individually sponsored or co-sponsored the most requests (14), followed by Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland (12), who also serves on the committee, The Nerve’s analysis found.

Peeler, for example, who formerly served as the Senate president, sponsored four earmarks totaling $7.4 million for the town of Clover, which he represents, in York County for water and sewer projects, “economic development/revitalization,” replacement lighting at a park, and a police training facility, according to the earmark list.

Ten earmarks sponsored solely by Peeler totaled $13.5 million. In comparison, Jackson’s 12 individual earmarks totaled $2.1 million, including five separate $300,000 requests for local government or nonprofit projects, records show.

The Nerve’s review also found that the chairpersons of the Senate’s 15 standing committees each sponsored or co-sponsored at least one earmark, including Senate President Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, who chairs the Interstate Cooperation Committee and individually sponsored five requests totaling $12.4 million.

Alexander, for example, sponsored earmarks for the following projects in Oconee County, according to the earmark list: $5.5 million for the “City of Walhalla Community Center,” $5 million for the “City of Westminster Recreation Facility,” and $1 million for the “Walhalla Performing Arts Center.”

In addition, Alexander also chairs the Senate Finance Health and Human Services Budget Subcommittee, which collectively made four earmark requests totaling $26 million, records show.

The Nerve last year revealed that Alexander reported a total of more than $850,000 in income over a 10-year period from local, county and state agencies mainly in Oconee County through his office supply business.

Neither Alexander nor Peeler responded to written requests last week from The Nerve seeking comment on their sponsored earmarks.

The Nerve’s review found that $312.1 million of the total $314.4 million in Senate earmarks would be funded with state surplus funds. That amount represents 23% of the net $1.34 billion in actual and expected surplus money for fiscal 2023-24, according to the Senate’s version of the total state budget, which includes state, federal and “other” funds.

To put the $314.4 million into some perspective, it represents more than the total budgets of dozens of state agencies and would equate to about $60 for every man, woman and child in South Carolina.

And that amount is on top of nearly $1.3 billion in state surplus funds – which works out to approximately $240 for every S.C. resident – reserved for incentives to bring a Scout Motors electric-vehicle plant near Columbia.

The Policy Council has called on lawmakers to use state surplus dollars to accelerate tax relief for South Carolinians.

Big-ticket items

Following are the 10 most-expensive Senate earmark requests, along with each funding sponsor, as described in the earmark list obtained by The Nerve:

*Publicly Owned Aeronautics Infrastructure – New and Existing Business: $55 million. Sponsors: Senate Finance Natural Resources and Economic Development Budget Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, who is the former Senate minority leader.

*Elevate SC-22 Over the Waccamaw River: $30 million. Sponsors: Sens. Luke Rankin, R-Horry; Greg Hembree, R-Horry;  Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown; and Kent Williams, D-Marion.

*York County Water and Sewer – Blue Granite Acquisition Costs: $20 million. Sponsors: Sens. Wes Climer, R-York; and Peeler.

*South Carolina Quantum Association Curriculum Development and Use Study: $15 million. Sponsor: Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland.

*Piedmont Technical College – Saluda Advanced Manufacturing Center and New Campus: $14.3 million. Sponsor: Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, who is the Senate majority leader.

*Berkeley County Courthouse Relocation: $10 million. Sponsors: Sens. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley; and Brian Adams, R-Berkeley.

*Spartanburg Downtown Development Infrastructure: $10 million. Sponsors: Sens. Scott Talley, R-Spartanburg; and Peeler.

*Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center Designation: $10 million. Sponsors: Senate Finance Health and Human Services Budget Subcommittee, chaired by Alexander.

*Ronald McDonald House – Charleston: $9 million. Sponsors: Senate Finance Health and Human Services Budget Subcommittee.

*City of West Columbia – Riverwalk Expansion and Connectivity: $7 million. Sponsor: Setzler.

As for the $55 million “publicly owned aeronautics infrastructure” project, those funds would be used to refurbish buildings owned by the South Carolina Technology and Aviation Center (SCTAC), a public entity in Greenville County, and leased to aerospace giant Lockheed Martin for its F-16 production and maintenance program, according to an April 21 Post and Courier news story.

The Nerve’s review found that the 172 earmarks, including the $55 million request, initially were adopted by the Senate Finance Committee on April 4, though online budget records do not list which lawmakers sponsored the requests or label the amounts as earmarks.

Last week, The Nerve asked the S.C. Department of Commerce – the agency through which the $55 million would flow – for its written records about the earmark request, but no documents were released. In a written response to The Nerve, agency spokeswoman Kelly Coakley said that “while Commerce is aware of this proposed item, we cannot speculate (about) the legislative intent behind the pending budget item,” noting that the state budget has “not been finalized.”

Yet Commerce last year provided The Nerve with a document showing that a $9 million payment by Commerce to SCTAC’s Board of Directors in October 2021 –  described by another Commerce spokesperson as “pass-thru” state funding, was to be used by Lockheed Martin for a runway project for military aircraft, as The Nerve reported then.

Neither Setzler, whose Senate Finance subcommittee sponsored the earmark, nor representatives of SCTAC or Lockheed Martin, responded to written or phone messages from The Nerve seeking comment about the $55 million earmark request.

The $15 million South Carolina Quantum Association earmark sponsored by Harpootlian is $10 million less than what he sought last year to initiate the project. In his veto message last year, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster said the proposed “supercomputer” would be owned and operated by a “yet-to-be-created” nonprofit, contending that the budget proviso would create a “dangerous precedent” and was “an end run around the state procurement laws.” The latest earmark would be funneled through Commerce.

The Nerve’s latest review found that the single-largest number of Senate earmarks – 68 – would flow through the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, ranging from a $9,340 earmark sponsored by Sen. Billy Garrett, R-McCormick, for the Promised Land Community Association to Setzler’s $7 million earmark for the West Columbia Riverwalk project.

Senators designated a total of 26 state agencies to channel money mainly to municipal or county governments, or local nonprofits, The Nerve’s analysis found.

The only senators who didn’t make any individual earmark requests, according to the earmark list, were Sens. Penry Gustafson, R-Kershaw; Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville; and Tom Young, R-Aiken, who serves on the Senate Finance Committee.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-394-8273 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.

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