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South Carolina’s House of Representatives released this week its list of nearly $90 million in earmarks members want in the upcoming budget that takes effect on July 1. But the list falls short of the level of transparency and accountability that most lawmakers said they favored last month when polled by McClatchy reporters.
The new list also reveals something else troubling: Some Midlands lawmakers are sponsoring earmarks that, in previous years, other lawmakers took heat for sponsoring because of potential conflicts of interest.
Some government watchdogs wonder if these lawmakers are trying to head off additional criticism by convincing their State House friends to sponsor the questionable earmarks on their behalf.
Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, is one of the sponsors of a $2000,000 earmark for a Lower Richland after-school program, run by a nonprofit called the Midlands Community Development Corporation. In the past, funding requests have been made by Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, who sits on the board of MCDC and is the pastor of the Bible Way Baptist Church, which founded MCDC. Jackson’s role with the church and nonprofit led to questions from government watchdogs and the media about whether he had a conflict of interest when he sponsored the requests.
Jackson could not be reached for comment. Howard said there is nothing underhanded going on.
“I believe in the program and I believe in what they’re doing over there,” said Howard, adding that Jackson did not ask him to sponsor the earmark.
Jackson sponsored a $200,000 earmark for the Antioch Baptist Church’s senior center in Lower Richland, where Howard is a board member. Howard, who made a similar request in the House, said he was unaware Jackson made the request. He maintains that the senior center is separate from the church and all decisions regarding its programming and funds are made by non-trustee members — not him. The money will help residents control and prevent diseases and other health issues such as diabetes, hypertension and strokes, he said.
Sen. Katrina Frye Shealy, R-Lexington, and the Women’s Caucus requested a combined $311,000 for the S.C. Cervical Cancer Awareness Initiative. In previous years, the earmark request was made by Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R- Richland, and given to a nonprofit, the Palmetto Center for Policy Alternatives. The requests raised a potential conflict of interest for Finlay because his family started the nonprofit, which is run by his longtime friend/lobbyist Steve Fooshe.
Shealy said Fooshe asked her to sponsor the request. Shealy’s mother passed away from cervical cancer at age 40.
“I’m a strong advocate for cervical cancer awareness,” she said. “There’s no hokey pokey going on,” adding that the organization typically receives state funding every year.
The list, however, fails to say just how the earmark will be used. In previous years, it paid a former Republican lawmaker to run campaigns, promoting a vaccine that prevents certain types of cancer.
A government watchdog says this isn’t how earmarks should be handled.
“Good government practice would be full disclosure of the full details and the actual sponsor of the bill,” said John Crangle, a longtime S.C. government watchdog.
The House list looks similar to the $107 million list approved by the Senate in April.
The single largest House earmarks: it’s a tie between $19 million for the Greenville Cultural and Arts Center and $19 million to renovate the Columbia Convention Center. That second request came from one of the State House’s staunches critics of earmarks, Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, as well as Jackson.
The new list also highlights another issue embedded in the culture of the State House: Not following its own rules.
Currently, the House rules require a full list of earmarks to be published on the State House website and to include a brief description of how each earmark will be spent As of Thursday afternoon, the list had not been posted online and was missing the names of many organizations set to receive the earmarks.
“To me, it’s a simple concept: South Carolina taxpayers need to be able to know what we’re paying for,” said Rep. Josiah Magnuson, R-Spartanburg. “We need to be able to hold legislators accountable on waste and their own pet projects. I think that’s very troubling that we don’t know where this money is ending up and we don’t know what it’s being used for.”
The budget conference committee will meet next week to hash out which earmarks will be funded before the General Assembly gives the budget final approval later this month.