COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina taxpayers spend about $635,400 yearly on traffic control provided by highway troopers, with three college football teams accounting for three-quarters of that.
For each game at Williams-Brice Stadium and Death Valley this fall, 90 troopers will work 12-hour shifts to direct the tens of thousands of reveling South Carolina Gamecocks and Clemson Tigers fans to and from their tailgating spots for home games. Seven troopers will control traffic flow at each South Carolina State home game.
According to the Department of Public Safety, troopers' time will cost taxpayers a combined $469,000 at the rival universities in Clemson and Columbia, as well as $10,850 for the S.C. State Bulldogs' season in Orangeburg. No other school sport gets the game-day service aimed at keeping drivers and pedestrians safe.
The agency can't bill the schools.
Since at least 1996, legislators have inserted a clause in the state budget barring the agency from charging for their special event services. Exactly how long it's been in the budget is unclear.
Senate President Pro Tem John Courson, R-Columbia, said efforts to remove the prohibition pop up every few years.
“This has ping-ponged back and forth almost as long as I've been in the Senate,” said Courson, who was first elected in 1984 and believes the public safety effort should continue at no cost to colleges. “With the security problems we have in this country, it's certainly appropriate to have state law enforcement at large sporting events.”
A proposal allowing DPS to charge a fee arose briefly during the budget process in May, but it was pulled before the Senate Finance Committee could debate it.
“The universities win the argument before it even becomes an issue anymore,” Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, said Friday.
Next year, he said, legislators could try to break out the cost on a specific line in DPS' budget.
Over his tenure, then-Gov. Mark Sanford tried three times – in 2003, 2004 and 2009 – to get rid of the billing ban with his veto pen, arguing that colleges and other beneficiaries should pay for the service out of the revenue their events generate. Each time, legislators overrode the vetoes.
“The agency should not be forced to subsidize traffic control … especially since the universities are achieving record revenue from the television broadcasts of athletic games.” he wrote in his June 2009 veto message, noting the agency's budget had been slashed by $26 million that year. “If USC and other colleges can afford to begin multi-million dollar athletic infrastructure projects, then they can certainly afford to pay for the traffic control at the events that bring in this substantial revenue.”
Then-state Rep. Nikki Haley voted to uphold that veto. Since becoming governor, Haley, also a Republican, has twice struck the ban from her executive budget proposals, but unlike her predecessor, she has not vetoed it on the back end of the budget process.
Haley believes a fee-for-service model between DPS and the universities would better serve taxpayers, but she focused her vetoes on spending, said her spokesman, Rob Godfrey.
She “could not veto every single item we'd like to see funded in a different way,” he said.
Sen. Larry Grooms voted in 2004 and 2009 to uphold Sanford's vetoes of the ban. But he said Thursday he does not want DPS to bill for the service. If that happens, he said, the universities will provide it for as cheaply as they can, potentially putting public safety at risk.
“I'm at a lot of home college ball games. I can't imagine what it would be like if we didn't have adequate traffic flows,” said Grooms, R-Bonneau, noting that he has season tickets to both Clemson and South Carolina football games. “I don't want university police and their volunteers being a substitute for the highway patrol.”
Clemson spokeswoman Cathy Sams raised similar concerns. After praising the training and expertise of the Highway Patrol, she said, “We would not want to see traffic safety handled by the lowest bidder.”
She also pointed to a Clemson study that found each home football game provides $733,000 in net tax revenue to the state and $542,000 to local government.
“Football games have a tremendous positive economic impact on the state – generating revenues far in excess of the cost of traffic control,” Sams said.
While the discussion over the years has centered on college football, the prohibition on fees applies to other events too.
Troopers also provide traffic control for horse races in Camden and Elloree, two events at Darlington Raceway, the Heritage golf tournament on Hilton Head Island, the four-day Eastern Carolina Fair in Florence and the 10-day Coastal Carolina Fair in Ladson. The most costly single-day event for the agency is the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway, estimated at $39,100 for 105 troopers working 12-hour shifts.