Changes at a key state agency have made it more difficult for lawmakers to tap into a $22.5 million fund for pet projects.
The money has the "appearance of a slush fund," an aide to Gov. Mark Sanford said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, a former Sanford aide said key legislators use their control of the fund to punish and reward other legislators.
The fund, known as the competitive grants program, has paid for small expenses -- $7,500 for the Greenville Foot Bridge Festival -- and larger costs, including hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair small-town sewer lines or build a robotics training center in Union County.
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The fund was established to pay for the most deserving community projects, advocates say. The money has gone to projects in both urban and rural districts, to both Republicans and Democrats.
Typically, the grants are approved by a five-member committee. But grants of less than $100,000 require only the approval of State Budget and Control Board staff.
Two dozen lawmakers have received $150,000 or more of these smaller grants, leading some, including Sanford, to question the program.
However, recently appointed State Budget and Control Board executive director Henry White has stopped approving the smaller grants, asking the competitive grants committee to approve the projects.
White was Sanford's chief of staff before he was named to the budget board post. Sanford long has battled with legislators over state spending and has sought control over the Budget and Control Board.
"Unfortunately, what was going on had the appearance of a slush fund," said Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer.
Some lawmakers defended the practice, noting they created the grants program at the request of the governor.
Others, such as state Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, said the grants set up a system of "shadow earmarks," money handed out outside the budget process.
The competitive grants program was created in 2005. A total of $18 million was allocated in that year's and last year's budget. But lawmakers also added money to the fund, resulting in an additional, unexpected $25 million for grants.
In total, $43.7 million was allocated for the local grants. About $22.5 million remains to be spent. The committee has received more than 1,700 requests for grants, totaling about $300 million. The state is accepting applications through the end of March.
The amount of money available has led to concerns the grants are being given, or withheld, for political leverage.
Blogger Will Folks, formerly Sanford's press spokesman, posted a story on his Web site, quoting an anonymous state senator as alleging Senate finance chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, was punishing or rewarding senators by doling out grants.
The story alleged both Leatherman and House Ways and Means chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, could authorize grants with a phone call to the Budget and Control Board. Leatherman and Cooper both sit on the five-member Budget and Control Board, which hires and fires the agency's executive director.
Both Leatherman and Cooper denied the allegations.
"Absolutely not. I would ask you to ask any member in there," Leatherman said. "I didn't get involved in the grants, obviously unless they're in my district. ...... I can't ever recall calling the executive director about a grant. You send it over and let them decide."
Cooper, likewise, said he had not used approval of grant requests to gain clout over fellow legislators. However, he said he contacted the Budget and Control Board on "two or three" requests.
"Everybody in this state looks for us (lawmakers) to bring money home to our district," Cooper said.
The grant allocations span the state's political spectrum.
The largest single grant -- $500,000 -- was awarded to a health center in Spartanburg Democrat Harold Mitchell's district.
Both Democrats and Republican received grants as large as $400,000.
The chairman of the grants committee, former state Rep. Jimmy Bailey of Charleston, said lawmakers have stayed out of committee decisions.
"There has never been a legislator that called me and said, 'How about a vote for this?' " Bailey said. "I've expressed my opinion to them more than they express their opinion to me."
Lawmakers often had little to do with some grants, such as the $41,784 approved for an electronic medical records system for Sandhills Medical Foundation, based in McBee.
Executive director Warren Hix said he learned about the program and filled out the application. Hix said he brought in Rep. Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, only because the application required a lawmaker to sign off.
"It was not an onerous or a burdensome grant process," Hix said. "We didn't have to go through a whole lot of hoops."
But the grant program has become central to the budget debate.
The House was considering creating a new commission to approve grant projects, bypassing White at the Budget and Control Board. Cooper said Wednesday that the House will abandon those changes.
Sanford believes the grant committee should establish objective criteria for choosing projects, Sawyer said. That way, it would be clear why projects are chosen or rejected. Some lawmakers agreed.
"When the fund was first established, I don't think anyone ever thought it would end up having the amount of money it does," said Sen. Jim Ritchie, R-Spartanburg. "Given the amount of dollars now flowing through it, I think the public would expect careful analysis of its usage."
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TOP GRANT GETTERS
Two dozen lawmakers received at least $150,000 from the competitive grant fund for causes they advocated. Each request was for no more than $100,000. In total, more than $11 million was granted. (Another $10 million has been doled out in increments of more than $100,000.)
$428,500 --House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston
$339,500 -- Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson
$314,143 -- Rep. Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, head of the House budget committee
$225,000 -- Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, head of the Senate budget committee
$201,994 --Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, Senate majority leader
$200,000 -- Rep. Bill Cotty, R-Richland; Rep. Laurie Funderburk, D-Camden; Rep. Lonnie Hosey, D-Allendale; Rep. Joe Jefferson, D-Berkeley; Rep. Herb Kirsh, D-York; Sen. Yancey McGill, DWilliamsburg; Rep. Vida Miller, D-Georgetown; Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland; Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw; Rep. Garry Smith, RGreenville; Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter
$197,500 -- Sen. John Courson, R-Richland
$184,000 -- Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg
$175,030 --Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter
$172,863 -- Sen. John Hawkins, R-Spartanburg
$169,900 --Sen. Tommy Moore, D-Aiken
$160,000 --Rep. Thomas Rhoad, D-Bamberg (1)
$156,323 -- Rep. Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg
$150,000 --Sen. John Land, D-Clarendon
(1) No longer serving SOURCE: State Budget and Control Board
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Some projects paid for through the program: Water tank for Grove Fire District -- $65,000 Piggy on the Rock Festival, Union -- $2,500 Carolina Elite Soccer Academy soccer fields, Greenville -- $100,000 Renovations and improvements to grave of Gen. Francis Marion -- $50,000 Richland County anti-graffiti program -- $25,000 S.C. Cotton Museum, Bishopville -- $99,000SOURCE: State Budget and Control Board