SC lawmakers set to spend over $430 million on local projects

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From left, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, House Speaker Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, and House Majority Leader David Hiott, R-Pickens, talk to reporters on Wednesday, March 13, 2024, after the House gave final approval to its $13.2 billion budget proposal. (Skylar Laird/SC Daily Gazette)

COLUMBIA — An aquatics center in Richland County, an athletic stadium outside Greenville and renovations to a historic movie theater in Florence are among more than 500 community projects and services set to receive a chunk of taxpayer money through the state budget.

In total, the House and Senate budget plans for the fiscal year starting July 1 allocate more than $435 million in one-time spending on projects sponsored by legislators, known as earmarks. They include law enforcement upgrades, building renovations, roadwork, attractions and charities.

That’s far below the $713 million approved last year, though still leaps and bounds above prior years.

The chambers are still negotiating on a final spending package, though it’s very likely it will simply combine the $160.6 million the Senate spends on earmarks with the $274.5 million spent on local projects that House members sponsored.

The six-member House-Senate panel working on a budget compromise continues meeting Wednesday. A $610 million boost last month in revenue estimates made their work a lot easier, as it gave them more available to spend. Of that, $467 million is considered surplus meant for one-time expenses — such as on community projects.

Gov. Henry McMaster has historically vetoed much of the spending that’s funneled through state agencies at legislators’ request as he called for greater transparency.

As the spending became less secretive, he vetoed less of it.

Last year, after legislators provided his office — for the first time — paperwork backing up their requests ahead of sending him their budget plan, he vetoed just $1.5 million worth. He vetoed so little that legislators didn’t even bother to return to Columbia to vote on overriding his line-item strikes.

Less to spend

This year, the single-biggest earmark in either chamber’s plan is $8 million to improve local roads in York County — which roads will be decided by county council. Co-sponsored by York County GOP Sens. Wes Climer and Michael Johnson, the money is essentially a reimbursement for what the county spent on Interstate 77 interchange work, Climer said.

But a combined request for Myrtle Beach provides the most money to a single recipient.

The House and Senate proposals each allocate $5 million to revitalize downtown Myrtle Beach and turn the city into a tech lab, meaning it would partner with companies as a test ground for new technology. Legislators who represent parts of Horry County actually asked budget writers for $75 million for the city but got $10 million total instead, said Rep. Case Brittain, R-Myrtle Beach.

Some of that money will go toward infrastructure needs, such as fixing roads and laying sewer pipes, but the city also has plans to renovate historic theaters and revamp the now-closed Myrtle Beach Pavilion amusement park.

“I think it’s going to be very, very impressive,” Brittain said.

The least expensive earmark is $5,000 sponsored by Rep. Seth Rose, D-Columbia, for new ornaments for the Statehouse Christmas tree. That money would go to the Columbia Garden Club, which decorates the Statehouse grounds and Governor’s Mansion every year.

Other big-ticket items included $6 million to the city of Mauldin, just southeast of Greenville, toward building a multipurpose stadium and another $6 million to the Richland County Recreation Commission toward an aquatics center.

Still, this year’s earmark list lacks the multiple high-dollar projects like last year, when the biggest was $55 million to update Greenville’s Lockheed Martin campus.

Instead, lawmakers opted to fund a similar number of items for less money. That helps spread the wealth to projects that might otherwise get overlooked, House Ways and Means Chairman Bruce Bannister told the SC Daily Gazette.

“Some of these things that are more local wouldn’t get as much attention from the entire chamber on their own,” the Greenville Republican said.

In the budget approved last year, $713 million funded 518 legislator-sponsored items. This year, $435 million could fund 520 projects.

Generally, the Legislature had less surplus to spend this year as federal COVID-19 aid packages to governments and people dried up.

This year’s budget is likely to be a taste of how future spending plans will look, Bannister said.

“This is probably more of what you’ll see going forward,” he said.

How it breaks down

For both the House and the Senate, the biggest category of spending was for tourism, recreation and sports. Combined, those earmarks make up $124.3 million, or nearly 29% of the total, according to an analysis by the SC Daily Gazette.

More than $32 million of that will go toward building and upgrading stadiums and recreation facilities in Richland County, as well as in the smaller cities of Mauldin, Sumter, Aynor, Seneca and Clover.

Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia and the Greenville Zoo are again set for state budget allocations. This year, each could get $1 million.

Infrastructure projects — roadwork, water and sewer improvements — constituted the next biggest category, with roughly $80 million, or about 18% of all legislator-sponsored projects.

Of that, $5 million is slated to go to Columbia to help raise the railroad crossing on Assembly Street known for snarling traffic. Last year, the city asked for at least $15 million and instead received $10 million through the budget. The state has previously allocated $20 million to the project expected to cost hundreds of millions in all.

Close behind items grouped as infrastructure were projects categorized as public health and social support, making up $78 million, or nearly 18%.

Much of the money for public health will go to nonprofits, including $5 million for The Children’s Hospital Collaborative, a coalition of the state’s children’s hospitals; $3.5 million for the Middle Tyger Resource Center for family services in Spartanburg County; and $3 million for the Unumb Center for Neurodevelopment in Columbia.

Local government projects that aren’t roadwork and sewer upgrades tally up to $44.3 million.

That includes upgrades to city halls in smaller towns, including Irmo, Lynchburg and Turbeville, which will each get under $1 million.

Rural Bamberg County stands to receive $1.5 million for courthouse repairs, in addition to $1 million the project received last year. The town of Bamberg could receive $1 million to help cover costs of a tornado that ripped through its small downtown in January.

A combined $5 million from two separate earmarks would pay for upgrades to Columbia’s Five Points entertainment district, including a new parking garage.

Top sponsors

Bannister, the House budget chief, sponsored the biggest sum of earmarks in the budget, at $12.4 million. His counterpart in the Senate, Finance Chairman Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, followed with $10.2 million. Both amounts reflect items they alone sponsored.

Spending that Bannister singularly sponsored included $5 million to expand the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, an Upstate concert and tournament venue, with the hopes of drawing bigger acts and national championship games. A different venue in downtown Greenville, The Peace Center, received $17.5 million last year for an expansion project.

Items sponsored by Peeler included $4 million for the York County town of Clover to build a new indoor recreation facility.

Close behind them were House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, who sponsored $10.1 million in projects in the budget, and House Speaker Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, at $9.8 million.

In some cases, lawmakers teamed up to sponsor earmarks.

For instance, more than a dozen Republicans signed up for credit in sending $3 million to the South Carolina Association of Pregnancy Care Centers. That’s an increase from the $2.4 million allocation sent last year and in 2022 to the nonprofit crisis pregnancy centers that offer help to women they hope to dissuade from having an abortion.

Other legislators had more requests funded in the budget, but in smaller amounts.

Twelve projects sponsored by Sen. Michael Gambrell, R-Anderson, add up to $3.1 million. Rep. Jackie “Coach” Hayes, D-Dillon, got 12 projects funded for $2.8 million, while 10 projects sponsored by Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, total $4.2 million.

Community projects sponsored by Gambrell include $850,000 for the Cancer Association of Anderson, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting cancer patients; and $40,000 for a farmers’ market in the 3,000-person town of Honea Path.

Legislators often don’t get their full request for any given project. Instead, they provide paperwork to their budget chairmen outlining their request, and it’s ultimately up to Bannister and Peeler to decide what makes it into their chamber’ plan from money available.

Bannister noted there’s no attempt to distribute the money evenly per legislator. Instead, budget writers trust that lawmakers will ask for what the people in their districts most need, Bannister said.

“Members are the closest to their respective constituents,” Bannister said. “They know when a state investment would be most helpful to the people they represent.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated Wednesday with information on a combined $10 million allocation to Myrtle Beach after the SC Daily Gazette spoke with a sponsoring legislator. 

Top 25 earmarks

The following lists the 25 highest-dollar earmarks in the House and Senate spending plans, with their legislative sponsors, as described in the chambers’ budget documents

$8 million: Local roadwork in York County; co-sponsored by Sens. Wes Climer, R-Rock Hill, and Michael Johnson, R-Tega Cay

$6 million: City of Mauldin multi-purpose stadium; Rep. David Vaughan, R-Simpsonville

$6 million: Richland County Recreation Commission aquatics center, Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Columbia

$5.9 million: City of Sumter, Bobby Richardson Sports Complex; House Speaker Murrell Smith, R-Sumter

$5.27 million: Town of Aynor, Levister Recreation Center; House Legislative Oversight Chairman Jeff Johnson, R-Conway

$5.15 million: City of Seneca recreation complex addition; House Labor Commerce and Industry Chairman Bill Sandifer, R-Seneca

$5 million: Bon Secours Wellness Arena renovation and expansion; House Ways and Means Chairman Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville

$5 million: Children’s Hospital Collaborative; Senate Finance’s health and human services subcommittee

$5 million: City of Columbia, Assembly Street railroad grade separation project; House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia

$5 million: City of Florence Freedom Boulevard water line extension; Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence

$5 million: Georgetown County, for Murrells Inlet dredging; Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Murrells Inlet

$5 million: City of Myrtle Beach revitalization and tech hub; GOP Reps. Case Brittain and Val Guest of Myrtle Beach and Heather Crawford of Socastee

$5 million: City of Myrtle Beach downtown revitalization; GOP Sens. Luke Rankin of Myrtle Beach, and Stephen Goldfinch of Murrells Inlet

$5 million: National Medal of Honor Center for Leadership; GOP Reps. Kathy Landing and Tom Hartnett of Mount Pleasant, and Matt Leber of Johns Island

$5 million: Piedmont Technical College Edgefield campus completion; Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield

$5 million: River Road/Brownswood Road safety upgrades; Reps. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, and Spencer Wetmore, D-Folly Beach

$4.4 million: City of Columbia, Marketplace at Congaree Pointe; Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Hopkins

$4.25 million: City of Walhalla police station; Rep. Bill Whitmire, R-Walhalla

$4 million: Beaufort County Airports Board, relocation of St. James Baptist Church; Senate Labor Commerce and Industry Chairman Tom Davis, R-Beaufort

$4 million: Town of Clover, construction of new indoor recreation facility; Senate Finance Chairman Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney

$4 million: Fort Mill Community Center renovations; Rep. Raye Felder, R-Fort Mill

$4 million: Horry County for public safety enhancements; Rep. Heather Crawford, R-Socastee

$3.5 million: Middle Tyger Resource Center, construction of new facility; Sen. Scott Talley, R-Spartanburg

$3.5 million: Woodruff-Roebuck Water District system expansion; Senate Corrections Chairman Shane Martin, R-Pauline

$3.4 million: Fire House #2 with police substation; Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York

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