A state land protection agency — accused of mishandling funds and buying property without public access — will have to work with less money under a plan that gives state lawmakers greater oversight of the agency.
The Legislature has cut about $10 million from the state Conservation Bank since 2015 and revamped the agency in an effort to resolve questions about its revenue and spending practices.
The state budget this year gives the bank $5.5 million to buy and preserve natural areas in danger of development, down from $15 million three years ago, according to the S.C. House and state Senate budget committees.
In the past two years, lawmakers have taken steps to ensure the bank won’t be closed. But in exchange, they made changes in how the state pays for the agency and how the agency picks conservation projects.
“This gives it more stability and it gives everybody an understanding of ... what they are doing,’‘ said state Rep. Davy Hiott, the Pickens Republican who chairs the House agriculture and natural resources committee.
The Conservation Bank no longer will get money from a real estate fee but will be funded through the state’s general fund, which gives lawmakers more direct oversight of the agency.
The bank now must come up with a map that prioritizes which land is most important for protection, instead of taking requests for funding on more of a first-come, first-served basis, said Brian White, an Anderson Republican who chairs the House budget committee. He said the agency will have to have money before committing to a conservation project and it will have to put more emphasis on acquiring land with public access.
Republican Gov. Henry McMaster also has expressed concern about the bank. He recently vetoed $220,000 from the agency’s budget for an attorney and another staffer, which he said were not needed.
McMaster, White and Hiott say the bank’s work is important, but it needs tighter oversight.
“I remain committed to my belief that this organization serves a valuable purpose, protecting the natural resources that keep us competitive and contribute mightily to a thriving $20 billion tourism industry,’‘ McMaster said in his veto message. “However, my support for the bank does not extend indefinitely.’‘
Bank boosters, including major environmental groups, say it is invaluable to preserving South Carolina’s natural areas. Since its formation more than 15 years ago, the Conservation Bank has spent $150 million to protect 300,000 acres.
That includes iconic plots like Stumphouse Mountain, an Oconee County historical site with a railroad tunnel and a waterfall; vast wetland forests near Florence and Marion; and land around the Angel Oak, a centuries-old live oak tree on John’s Island, near Charleston.
But the bank, which enjoyed strong support from former Gov. Mark Sanford, never was popular with some legislators, who questioned whether the state should spend taxpayer money preserving land.
For years, some lawmakers have been trying to shut down the agency. Others have been critical of the bank’s failure to ensure public access to some tracts it has saved from development.
In 2017, the Legislative Audit Council questioned why some land purchases didn’t include public access and why others involved paying affluent hunting preserve owners not to develop their property.
Late last year, the bank drew even more criticism for failing to transfer $3 million to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, as was required in the state budget. That money eventually was sent to Natural Resources, but the controversy sparked an array of legislative proposals to change the bank or eliminate it..
John Tynan, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, said making the bank a permanent state agency is a win for land protection.
In the past, the Legislature had been required periodically to reauthorize the agency, which led to fights to keep it from closing. The general fund also is a more reliable source of money for the bank than real estate fees, which fluctuate from year to year, Tynan said.
“Now, we are moving in a direction where there is a more reliable, more predictable revenue source that allows for some thoughtful conservation planning by the bank,’‘ Tynan said.