Published Online: May 1, 2009

Challenges Loom in Fight with S.C. Gov. on Stimulus

South Carolina legislators will either be heading to court or overriding an anticipated veto to force Gov. Mark Sanford to request $350 million in federal stimulus cash.

During the next couple of weeks, the House and Senate will develop a compromise version of the budget and send it to Sanford, who has a record of issuing hundreds of vetoes and of vetoing the entire budget.

South Carolina agencies and programs stand to see $2.8 billion during the next two years from the $787 billion federal stimulus law. Sanford controls about $700 million of that, or $350 million yearly. But Sanford, who has spent months railing against the stimulus law, has spent weeks on TV and writing to newspaper opinion pages explaining his view that money should be used to reduce state debt. It's an idea the White House has twice rejected.

But the budget the Senate sent to the House on Thursday forces the issue. It requires Sanford to "take all action necessary and required by" the stimulus law to secure funds legislators included in their spending plan.

Sanford supporters howled. If that stands, "we could go around the governor on just about anything," said Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken. The move raised questions about too much power being concentrated in the Legislature's hands and creating tyranny, said Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort and a former Sanford chief of staff.

Issues about spending the cash — turned away by the state Supreme Court last week as premature — now are likely to be back before a court. That could come from the same Chapin High School student whose lawsuit was denied. It could also go to court if Sanford doesn't follow a budget law requiring him to seek and spend the money. And Sanford supporters also could challenge constitutional issues in federal court.

Legislators are willing to risk lawsuits, saying they're confronted with Sanford's unyielding position on using stimulus cash for debt and the need to blunt $1 billion in budget cuts that have torn through budgets for public schools, colleges, law enforcement and health care during the past year. Without the money, more teachers would lose jobs, colleges would raise tuition and police agencies would face more severe reductions, they say.

"We're not even back where were a year ago," Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, said Thursday.

And Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, is waiting for a response from the White House that clarifies how the Legislature can access the cash.

On April 3, Sanford sent a letter certifying the state would request stimulus funds. Martin and McConnell see that clearing the way for the Legislature to use the money.

"We're just trying to clear up any confusion that might exist about the certification of the money," Martin said. "The underlying question is whether or not a certification has been made. ... And I think it has. And it frees us up to do what we did in the budget."

McConnell said the response also may decrease the chances of a court fight. And "it may facilitate a quick transfer of this money."

And none of this is necessary, McConnell said. "The governor can end all of this. All he's got to do is agree to take the money."

But Sanford isn't budging.

"We believe we have the authority to request the money and will do so if the General Assembly agrees to pay down debt," said Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer. And the White House and the state attorney general already have made it clear that only the governor can request the money, he said.

McConnell says that issue changed the minute Sanford reserved the money for the state in the April 3 letter.

"He's trying to appear to be against the stimulus money coming while trying to play politics against the Legislature," McConnell said. "When he went and reserved that money and reached out for it and said that he would take it, he made it subject to an appropriation."

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