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McMaster lauds SC’s boosted budget transparency but calls for more openness in spending

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Published: Jun. 23, 2022 at 8:05 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 23, 2022 at 8:50 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Republican Gov. Henry McMaster called South Carolina’s upcoming state budget “the most transparent and accountable budget in modern times” while renewing his call for more openness into how public dollars are spent.

The governor and his predecessors have strongly criticized the state legislature in the past for not being more transparent into how money is allocated to earmarks, requests that members of the General Assembly make for specific projects, usually in their home districts.

The money for those appropriations had been bundled together in previous years’ budgets and assigned to a state agency, in addition to that agency’s actual budget allocation, with no additional information disclosed on which members had requested those earmarks, who the recipients were, and how the money would be used.

“In the past, there have been conversations about agencies getting money, and they didn’t ask for it, didn’t know where it was supposed to be for until someone from someone’s office called and said, ‘Write a check for this amount and send it to this place,’” McMaster said during a news conference at the State House on Wednesday, in which he explained his budget vetoes and touted the nearly $14 billion spending plan’s accomplishments.

Recently budget writers started disclosing which members made requests and where that money was going, but for the first time this year, the governor solicited and received even more information.

In mid-May, his office asked legislators receiving appropriations to provide extra details, including the project for which the earmark was intended, what public purpose it served, its budget, and why it was needed in the community.

Most lawmakers did respond, McMaster said, to varying degrees.

“Some was a little skimpy, but we were able to do some inquiry on it and some follow up,” he said.

And for some, the governor said his office did not receive enough or any details to know if the spending was justified and could not find sufficient information on its own. That includes a list of 15 appropriations, totaling around $10 million, which “seem to be meritorious in their missions” but which were rejected “solely because I did not have enough information to determine whether it was a worthy investment of state taxpayer dollars,” McMaster wrote in his veto message to members of the General Assembly.

“You have the name of a project, and you don’t know what it is. Can’t tell what it is and no information was provided, so those got a veto, of course,” McMaster told reporters, saying “just about” all the earmarks for which the additional information was not provided were automatically nixed.

Last year, the governor vetoed $152.5 million in appropriations from the budget, but that sum dropped significantly this year to $52.6 million from 32 total vetoed earmarks. That includes $25 million for a yet-to-be-created nonprofit to purchase a quantum supercomputer; $7 million for a cultural welcome center in Orangeburg; and $1 million for a local tourism study.

Other appropriations were rejected because they were redundancies from another part of the spending plan.

“The best way to do things, when you’re spending somebody else’s money, is to let them know exactly what it’s going to be spent for, why, how much, and when, and then follow up with accountability to be sure that it was done,” McMaster said. “That is the effort we’re undertaking with our request, and it seems to be working. I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

However, the governor repeated his previous calls for the legislature to do away with the earmark process as a whole and instead develop a competitive grants process for spending on those types of projects, which would be open to public debate and scrutiny.

The General Assembly will return to Columbia next week to address the governor’s budget vetoes.

With the budget overwhelmingly passing both chambers last week, lawmakers should have the votes to override those vetoes if they decide to do so.

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