House members are looking at cutting almost in half a proposal to borrow nearly $500 million for higher education, job training and economic development projects.
The move — cutting the borrowing proposal to $275.5 million — came as Gov. Nikki Haley pressured lawmakers not to borrow money for the building projects in behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Haley’s office quickly signaled Wednesday that even the lower borrowing proposal would be unacceptable to the governor.
“New debt is new debt, whether it's half a billion dollars or a quarter of a billion dollars,” said Haley spokesperson Chaney Adams. “Taxpayers don't want any more of it.”
The furious leader of the House Democrats, state Rep. Todd Rutherford of Columbia, issued a press release calling the Republican governor “a selfish, vindictive narcissist who is more concerned about her own future political ambitions than the state of South Carolina.”
Haley aide Adams said Rutherford’s comments were “hate speech,” masking “the bankruptcy of his ideas.”
The borrowing proposal, part of the House budget proposal for the state’s fiscal year that starts July 1, could change yet again.
The House adjourned without deciding on the bond bill shortly after 10 p.m. Wednesday. It will resume debate at 1 p.m. Thursday.
Projects that likely would be remain in the borrowing package include:
• $50 million for K-12 education, money the state could use to address the Supreme Court’s decision that South Carolina does not do enough for poor, rural schools
• $50 million for the Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital
• $1.5 million for job training at Midlands Technical College
Meanwhile, $20 million for the University of South Carolina would be removed from the borrowing plan. However, that money would be moved to another part of the budget, where it would be “as secure as if (it were) in the bond bill,” said Rep. Rutherford.
Even if House members do cut the borrowing proposal, state senators could vote to increase the amount when they receive the House’s budget plan.
“If they’ll send us a bond bill, we’ll look at it very thoroughly and decide what, if anything, should be in it,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.
Leatherman, who also is the head of the Senate’s budget-writing committee, has said the state should have been selling bonds to borrow money for projects in recent years because of low interest rates and low construction costs.
But Haley is pressuring lawmakers not to borrow.
Haley posted to her Facebook page urging South Carolinians to contact their state representatives and tell them not to borrow $500 million for “random things” including maintenance of university buildings and “other special projects that have not been thought out.”
Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, said some Republicans, an overwhelming majority in the House, took Haley’s criticism of the bond package to heart.
As a result, efforts were being made to trim the borrowing package, originally approved last month by the House Ways and Means Committee by a 25-0 vote.
Ways and Means chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, had argued the state should borrow now because it has needs, borrowing capacity and interest rates are low. He also noted the state’s debt payments would not increase because older bonds are being paid off.
Other House members said the borrowing was needed, in part, to pay the cost of promises that Haley has made to new companies locating in the state.
Those promises — better infrastructure, trained workers and improved schools, all in the original bond package — have to be met, said Assistant House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, who chairs the House budget panel’s economic development subcommittee. “The bond bill was born out of necessity of what those needs were.”
Democrat Rutherford criticized Haley for saying the state should not borrow, saying she signed a bill into law to borrow money for Boeing in 2013.
“I’m so sick of this governor thinking she can play by a different set of rules and then point her finger at us for doing exactly what she’s already done.”