McMaster urges more transparency in how millions in taxpayer dollars are spent annually (2024)

By Mary Green

Published: Jul. 3, 2024 at 8:56 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 3, 2024 at 10:46 PM EDT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Each year, hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money are divvied up and sent to communities across South Carolina with zero public hearings, no open debate and little oversight.

For Gov. Henry McMaster, that lack of transparency is unacceptable.

“At the very least, I don’t think that the public has confidence in this earmark procedure,” McMaster said at a news conference at the State House on Wednesday.

His concern stems from how the legislature allocates earmarks — so-called “pet projects” sponsored by lawmakers of both parties, typically benefitting their home communities — in the annual state budget.

This year, $424.7 million earmarked in total across more than 500 individual member projects was appropriated in the spending plan McMaster signed into law Wednesday.

He said many of them are worthy of receiving this funding, pointing to distributions to a nonprofit working to keep seniors from going hungry and to an organization helping South Carolinians turn their lives around after they are released from prison.

Other frequent allocations go to much-needed designees, like local road safety improvements.

“But some of them, we have no idea what it is they’re going to do and we have no idea after they get the money if they ever did it,” McMaster told reporters.

That’s because for a long time the earmark appropriation process was clear as mud in South Carolina, with no record in the budget or related documents outlining which members received money and for what reason.

Oftentimes, the money was allocated to state agencies who reported being unaware of why they had received it, only for its purpose to become apparent when lawmakers called to ensure it was delivered to their communities.

On Wednesday, McMaster vetoed a total of 21 items from this year’s $13 billion budget, nine of them earmarks from members of both parties, totaling $2.3 million dollars. His reasoning ranged from projects he believed should be funded another way to ones he said his office had no way of knowing how exactly the money would be used and whether it would be spent responsibly.

In recent years, both the dollar and numerical amounts of budgetary vetoes the governor has issued have significantly dropped after he fought to bring more transparency to what has long been a secretive process of funding these projects.

A few years ago, McMaster started asking legislators to disclose which earmarks they sponsored, who the beneficiary was, and how the money would be spent, along with relevant financial filings from recipient organizations.

That was the first time such information was publicly disclosed, at risk of the project being vetoed if it was not provided, and budget writers have since adopted it as a requirement earlier in the drafting process for any lawmaker seeking an earmark.

“I think it’s come a long way,” McMaster said.

But the governor believes the process is still not transparent enough.

McMaster renewed his call Wednesday for the legislature to change the earmark request process, through which hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are divided and distributed with no public hearings or open debate, to a new grant-based system, which he believes would necessitate more openness.

“This has got to change,” McMaster said. “This is just not the way to spend the people’s money.”

The chair of the Senate’s budget-writing committee said he would listen to any suggestion of how to improve a process he admitted can get out of hand.

“It’s an issue we’re going to have to visit and agree on,” Senate Finance Committee Chair Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said.

McMaster also believes more follow-up work needs to be done to ensure money for these earmarks is being spent as intended — a goal he said could be accomplished if the legislature adopts his idea for a grant-based system.

As for the 21 vetoes, lawmakers could vote to override any or all of them.

That would require the legislature to come back into session in Columbia in the next few months, which leaders in the General Assembly have said they have little desire to do with their regular legislative session now concluded, barring unforeseen circ*mstances.

You can read the governor’s full budget veto message, including his reasoning for slashing several earmarks, below:

Copyright 2024 WCSC. All rights reserved.

McMaster urges more transparency in how millions in taxpayer dollars are spent annually (2024)

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