Politics & Government

Conservation bank poised to survive

After surviving on legislative life-support the past two years, the S.C. Conservation Bank would have a financial future under a Senate bill discussed Wednesday.

The Conservation Bank began helping land trusts buy land and conservation easements in 2004, funded by a portion of the document fees paid on real estate transactions. But the original bank legislation zeroed out the agency's funding any year when appropriations were decreased for a majority of state agencies.

The "death clause" meant the Conservation Bank didn't get any of its usual appropriations the past two years. The Legislature came through with enough money to pay for the agency's two-person staff each year, and last year lawmakers found $2 million to complete some land deals that were in the works before the economy stalled.

The new legislation, S.903, would wipe out the "death clause" and instead cut the Conservation Bank's portion of document fees by the same percentage as the average drop in appropriations for other state agencies during down years. Because revenue from real estate document fees typically drops during down times, the Conservation Bank in reality would be hit harder than other agencies. But at least the proposed change would allow them to protect some land, said conservation bank director Marvin Davant.

"They're still going to be treated worse than any other state agency, and they're going to be happy about it," said Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston.

Campsen bristled when some committee members questioned giving money to land conservation when school teachers are being furloughed.

"Some things have priorities over others, but that doesn't mean the things that are low priorities should go to zero," Campsen said.

The subcommittee agreed to pass the bill forward to the full agriculture committee.