For the fiscal year that ended June 30, a special fund created with the 2017 state gas-tax-hike law had an $896.1 million surplus – a 50% increase compared to the end of fiscal 2020, records show. Total collected revenues also grew by about the same rate over the one-year period to almost $2 billion.

But despite being flush with taxpayer money, the S.C. Department of Transportation isn’t anywhere close to fixing most of the state’s bad roads and bridges.

From July 1, 2017, when the gas-tax-hike law took effect, through June 30 this year, the total dollar value of completed “pavements” – repaving or road reconstruction – projects was $662.2 million, less than 50% of the $1.35 billion estimated cost of all such projects in the state’s 46 counties, The Nerve found in a review of recently released DOT records.

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Gov. Henry McMaster quietly appointed the owner of a well-known Columbia restaurant – and generous campaign donor – to a vacant state Department of Transportation Commission seat, but a lawmaker is questioning the selection process.

The 2nd Congressional District Legislative Delegation is scheduled this morning to vote whether to confirm McMaster’s appointment of Bill Dukes, owner of the Blue Marlin restaurant in Columbia’s popular Vista district, to the DOT Commission seat representing the 2nd Congressional District, which covers all or parts of Richland, Lexington, Orangeburg, Aiken and Barnwell counties.

Contacted Monday by The Nerve, state Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, who is chairman of the 17-member Richland County legislative delegation, said he wasn’t aware of Dukes’ appointment until notified of today’s meeting. The 2nd Congressional delegation is made up of the legislative delegations representing counties within the district.

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Last year, S.C. Sen. Kent Williams of Marion County reported receiving a collective $17,060 in legislative delegation payments from neighboring Dillon and Florence counties, parts of which are in his Senate district.

Another longtime lawmaker, Rep. Jackie Hayes of Dillon County, received $12,500 in 2020 – the same amount paid to Williams by Dillon County, records show.

For years, Williams and Hayes have been among a group of lawmakers getting payments from counties that don’t provide legislative delegation offices.

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What a difference a year can make – especially if you’re a state lawmaker.

In unexpectedly resigning his longtime House seat last July after winning the Republican primary, Alan Clemmons, a Myrtle Beach attorney, said in an affidavit to the State Election Commission that he was withdrawing from the general election because he was representing new legal clients who will “require a large investment of my time and focus.”

Clemmons, who was first elected to the House in 2002, officially resigned his House seat on July 17, 2020. As of last Wednesday – slightly more than a year later – he became a candidate for the Horry County master-in-equity judge’s seat, state Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC) records show.

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The S.C. House and Senate plan to spend millions creating new legislative and congressional district maps based on the latest U.S. Census – a convoluted process that lawmakers undertake every 10 years.

Historically, the “reapportionment” or “redistricting” process has been aimed at keeping incumbent legislators in office, though it’s not the official line from politicians.

“I look forward to our working together on a redistricting process that is fair and equitable to all South Carolinians,” longtime Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, who is the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said in a press release last week in announcing the members of a redistricting subcommittee chaired by him.

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If you want to learn what your county legislative delegation is up to, you likely won’t find much – if any – information on county government websites or the state Legislature’s website.

The state Supreme Court in 1996 ruled that legislative delegations, made up of senators and House members representing a county, are considered public bodies under the state’s open-meetings law, which requires them to give advance notice of their meetings, cast votes during open session, and make meeting minutes available to citizens.

The Nerve on Wednesday revealed that some delegations have met in legislative buildings on the State House grounds in downtown Columbia far away from their home counties – skirting the intent of the Freedom of Information Act that public meetings be held at a “minimum cost or delay” to citizens.

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One day last month, state lawmakers representing Greenville County held separate meetings in a legislative building on the State House grounds in downtown Columbia – about 103 miles from Greenville – to discuss certain county board appointments that they control, as well as rules governing their delegation meetings.

In the smaller Darlington County, the county legislative delegation doesn’t meet as a group on county matters, according to a delegation member.

In neighboring Florence County, delegation meetings for years have been held in Columbia – about 83 miles from Florence – organized by a Senate employee who works for arguably the state’s most-powerful lawmaker.

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South Carolina Democrats May Have A Long Sought-after Opportunity

Greenville County GOP Meeting

On July 11, 1804, longstanding political rivals and personal enemies, former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr raised their dueling pistols and took aim. Due to political upsets by Hamilton, Burr retaliated by challenging Hamilton to a duel in which Hamilton was killed.

Politics has always been an ugly business. Relationships get soured and emotions boil out of control. The ramifications can be long-lasting.

Unfortunately, South Carolina’s Grand Old Party is currently in the middle of such turmoil.

This current dueling all started with the largest county delegation of the South Carolina Republican Party. Any state-wide candidate knows that to win a state-wide election requires a healthy relationship with the Greenville County Republican Party.

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Only three bridge projects have been completed in South Carolina with the nearly $2 billion in revenues collected under the 2017 state gas-tax-hike law, recently released transportation department records show.

And although the S.C. Department of Transportation has identified 465 out of 750 “structurally deficient” bridges statewide to be replaced, other agency records reviewed by The Nerve show that the vast majority of 66 “priority” projects in that category remain unfinished.

In passing the gas-tax-hike law, which raised the state gasoline tax by 12 cents per gallon over six years and increased other vehicle taxes and fees, lawmakers promised that the money would be used to fix the state’s crumbling roads and bridges. The latest 2-cent-per-gallon increase took effect July 1.

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A legislatively controlled committee has given five-figure pay hikes to a group of state agency heads, and a new law empowers the panel to recommend raises next fiscal year for certain statewide elected officials.

The Agency Head Salary Commission (AHSC) on Thursday– the start of the new fiscal year – approved the following annual salaries for agency heads, with the amount and percentage of the raises in parentheses, according to commission and Department of Administration records:

  • Christy Hall, Department of Transportation secretary: $298,000 ($46,768, 18.6%)
  • Marcia Adams, Department of Administration executive director: $284,679 ($60,637, 27%)
  • Nanette Edwards, Office of Regulatory Staff executive director: $265,000 ($86,381, 48.3%)
  • Bryan Stirling, Department of Corrections director: $250,000 ($50,143, 25%)
  • Grant Gillespie, State Fiscal Accountability Authority executive director: $245,000 ($44,438, 22.1%)

In addition, the commission set newly confirmed Commerce secretary Harry Lightsey’s annual salary at $252,000. His predecessor, Bobby Hitt, who retired, was making $199,857 as of April 9, according to an online database of state workers earning at least $50,000 yearly.

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In vetoing 226 budget earmarks totaling $152.5 million, Gov. Henry McMaster last week wrote that the “bulk of these earmarked appropriations still lack sufficient context, description, explanation of merit, or justification as to how the recipient intends to spend the funds.”

That might be one of the biggest understatements on how lawmakers funnel surplus tax dollars to their pet projects.

Under House and Senate rules, earmarks are funding requests by legislators for specific programs or projects that didn’t originate with a written agency budget request, or weren’t included in the prior fiscal year’s state appropriations.

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Over the last five years, state agencies, including public colleges and a university hospital system, collected a total of nearly $95 million in past-due payments through deductions from state income-tax refunds, records reviewed by The Nerve show.

A little-known state law, titled the “Setoff Debt Collection Act” (SDCA), allows state and local government agencies, “quasi-governmental” agencies and private colleges to seek deductions from income tax refunds by filing claims with the S.C. Department of Revenue.

The department recently provided The Nerve with collection records from 2016 through last year under the state Freedom of Information Act. This story examines collections by state agencies only.

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Lawmakers on Monday sent a strong message in adopting a state budget for the fiscal year that starts next week.

Let the spending party begin – with your tax dollars.

The Legislature overwhelmingly approved a $32.3 billion total budget for fiscal 2022, which includes state, federal and “other” funds, budget records show. Not included in that amount, according to the official “summary control document,” was $176 million in earlier approved spending from the state capital reserve fund, mainly for maintenance, renovation and other building projects at public colleges and universities.

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Of the 12 seats on the board governing state-owned utility Santee Cooper, two are vacant while seven members are serving past their expired terms.

A new law that purportedly will reform Santee Cooper – pushed by lawmakers after they couldn’t decide to sell the debt-burdened utility – doesn’t change the selection process for board members, though it allows the utility to offer them state health insurance benefits on top of their salaries.

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Proceeds from a $600 million settlement with the federal government over plutonium storage in South Carolina weren’t included in any state budget versions crafted by lawmakers for the upcoming fiscal year.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t planning to spend the massive windfall.

Last month, a joint resolution was quietly introduced in the Senate to spend the settlement funds, though the proposal didn’t contain any specifics on who would receive the money or how much of it would be appropriated. The “shell” resolution was sponsored by longtime Senate Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and was referred to his budget-writing committee.

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The number of potholes that the S.C. Department of Transportation claims it patched statewide jumped by more than 300,000 over the last four fiscal years, according to agency annual reports.

The Nerve has reported that DOT’s annual numbers in recent years were merely estimates. But DOT now says the 678,984 potholes it filled during fiscal 2020 was an actual count, according to records provided by the agency under the state Freedom of Information Act.

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