A plan to borrow $500 million this year for long-deferred state maintenance projects is on life support after a veto threat from S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster.
A new Winthrop Poll shows S.C. residents roughly are split on the idea. However, those surveyed overwhelmingly favor a proposal to make technical college free to state residents.
The long-awaited bond bill – which includes approximately $250 million to repair and renovate college buildings – already faced a tough road to passage this year.
It missed an April 10 deadline to pass the House and go to the Senate, meaning two-thirds of state senators must sign off on the proposal before it can be debated in the Legislature’s upper chamber.
McMaster made the road to passage harder last week by threatening to veto the proposal in its current form. The Richland Republican, governor since January, said any money borrowed should be used entirely to pay for road repairs in lieu of a proposed gas-tax increase.
“That probably puts the brakes on the bond bill,” said House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York. “The roads bill passed with a veto-proof majority.
“With the bond bill, does the same majority exist? I do not know that it does.”
The House could take up the bond bill – the state’s first since 2001 – as early as next week. Some legislators still support the idea, citing low interest rates for borrowing, the state’s ample debt capacity and the need to repair deteriorating state-owned buildings.
But there is little confidence the House will pass the bill with the two-thirds majority needed to show the chamber ultimately would override a McMaster veto.
Asking GOP legislators to oppose a GOP governor on tax, borrowing or spending issues puts them in a tough spot, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said.
“Those are most important to us Republicans because that gets to the core of what we believe,” the Edgefield Republican said. “If you’re going to oppose the governor, a lot of people are going to want to make sure it’s going to get passed before you do that. People don’t want to walk the plank and stick their neck out on an issue if it’s not going to be successful.”
The timing of McMaster’s April 4 veto-threat letter – just ahead of the crossover deadline and near the end of a shortened legislative session – also hurts the bond bill’s odds, legislators say.
“Him choosing to weigh in on this at this time has a dramatic impact on this bill, and it greatly decreases the chances it passes,” said state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort.
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, called McMaster’s threat a political ploy aimed at bolstering his 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
“It’s so unfortunate that Henry is following in (former Gov. Nikki) Haley’s footsteps in this regard,” Cobb-Hunter said. “It’s really bad for business. It’s really bad for the state’s economy.
“I really wish members would find some spinal fortitude to vote for what the state needs in spite of a veto. All we’re doing by not passing this bill is exacerbating even further the needs of this state.”
Poll: 47% opposed, 46% favor
S.C. residents are split on the issue, according to a Winthrop Poll question asked exclusively for The State.
According to the Winthrop Poll, released this week, 47 percent of S.C. residents say they would oppose a $500 million bond bill for deferred maintenance, while 46 percent favor it. Six percent were unsure, and 2 percent refused to answer.
Massey said those results are unsurprising.
“If you talk to the average guy on the street about whether universities need more money for capital projects, most people would ask whether they ever stopped building,” the Edgefield Republican said. “They probably do have some needs. There are other capital needs across the state in many different areas.
“The question is whether borrowing is the best way to address that need. Generally speaking, South Carolinians are pretty conservative when it comes to managing finances, and they don’t like borrowing.”
But Simrill, the House majority leader, said the results don’t tell the whole story because those surveyed weren’t told the consequences of not borrowing for building repair needs – higher costs later.
“Whether it’s a gas-tax question or a borrowing question, you have to know the alternative,” the York Republican said. “If you ask me whether I want to borrow or not, of course I don’t want to borrow.”
S.C. colleges have voiced full-throated support for the proposal, saying they need the money to address building needs neglected during the Great Recession and to remain competitive with schools in other states.
Ten college presidents last week urged McMaster to rethink his veto threat. Student government associations at the University of South Carolina, Clemson University and College of Charleston sent the Richland Republican a similar message Thursday.
“Our state must take action,” a USC spokesman said in a statement Friday. “After decades of neglect, our campuses are in danger of crumbling like our roads. Passing the bond bill is a small step in addressing the problem. Let’s find a prudent way to permanently fund education and roads – our economic future depends on it.”
McMaster, though, has remained unmoved.
Free technical college?
S.C. residents overwhelmingly support a S.C. Senate proposal to make technical college free to South Carolinians, according to the latest Winthrop Poll.
▪ 71 percent favor the idea
▪ 26 percent oppose the idea
▪ 2 percent were unsure
▪ 1 percent refused to answer
The Senate proposal won’t pass this year. But the Senate’s version of the state’s roughly $8 billion general fund budget includes $300,000 for a pilot program at Williamsburg Technical College in Kingstree.
SOURCE: Winthrop Poll