When the state is flush with taxpayer money, lawmakers can’t resist the urge to create new agencies.
Last week, Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, and three other Democratic senators introduced a bill that would create a state agency to serve a group of rural counties, called the “I-95 Corridor Authority,” which would “carry out economic development, health and educational improvement activities which, in the opinion of the authority, will improve the economic conditions in its member counties and are located in a member county or an adjacent census tract.”
A companion House bill, sponsored by Rep. Lonnie Hosey, D-Barnwell, and 15 other Democratic House members, was introduced last month.
In both bills, the authority would be legislatively controlled, with eight of its 13 board of director members appointed by lawmakers whose districts include the member counties, and the other five members selected by the governor.
Under the bills, the authority could hire its own employees, enter into contracts, file lawsuits, and buy and sell property.
The legislation doesn’t include a taxpayer tab for the new state agency, though both bills allow the authority to “receive state funds as appropriated by the General Assembly,” along with authorizing the agency to accept “private and public donations, grants, gifts, and federal funds.”
The Nerve earlier this month reported that lawmakers are planning to spend most of an expected $4.6 billion surplus for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The proposed total state budget for fiscal 2022-23 is $38.2 billion, under a just-passed House version.
The corridor authority bills appear to be a replay of Senate bill that passed the Legislature in 2011 but was vetoed by then-Gov. Nikki Haley. The Senate overrode the veto, though the House sustained it.
The Nerve reported then about the bill, which would have involved 12 rural counties along the I-95 corridor: Allendale, Bamberg, Calhoun, Clarendon, Colleton, Dillon, Hampton, Jasper, Lee, Marion, Marlboro and Williamsburg.
Haley, a Republican, wrote in her 2011 veto message that she was rejecting the bill because it “unnecessarily grows government.”
“By duplicating the efforts of existing state agencies – the South Carolina Department of Commerce, the South Carolina Department of Education, and local school districts, this bill further dilutes state resources and accountability for education and economic development,” Haley said, adding, “We must not carve out regions to prioritize over others.”
As The Nerve reported then, had the corridor authority been implemented, it would have been the second state agency created by lawmakers since 2010 to deal with rural economic development. The Rural Infrastructure Authority (RIA) annually awards tens of millions in grants and loans for water, sewer and drainage projects in rural areas statewide; its total budget for this fiscal year is $49.8 million.
Last October, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster proposed spending $500 million in federal coronavirus-relief funds, which would be administered by the RIA, to improve water, sewer and storm water systems in the state’s rural areas.
Besides RIA awards, lawmakers in 2019 approved $65 million to Commerce for the “Rural School District and Economic Development Closing Fund,” which, according to McMaster, who pushed for the creation of the state fund, is supposed to be used “solely, and without exception, for economic development” in rural areas.
In an email response Tuesday, Commerce spokeswoman Alex Clark said the agency’s plan for distributing the funds, which was approved by the state Joint Bond Review Committee (JBRC) last year, designates $30 million for a competitive grant program, developed by the state Office of Regulatory Staff, to expand broadband access in eligible counties.
The remaining $35 million was retained by Commerce to provide grants to eligible counties based on JBRC and state budget proviso guidelines, Clark said. To date, Commerce has awarded 16 grants totaling about $23 million to 12 counties, she said.
The House and Senate bills creating the corridor authority face an uphill climb in this year’s regular legislative session, as the deadline for one chamber to get a bill to the other chamber is April 10. Lawmakers in one chamber can take up a bill from the other chamber after the deadline if two-thirds of them agree; bills that aren’t passed this year would have to be reintroduced next year.