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Lawmakers at loggerheads over ousting S.C. State trustees

S.C. State University
S.C. State University File photo/gmelendez@thestate.com

All but one S.C. lawmaker voted this session to oust S.C. State University’s trustees, but the board of the financially troubled school remains in place because legislators cannot agree on the number of interim trustees who should oversee the school or who should appoint them.

That standoff continued Tuesday after a six-member negotiating committee of House and Senate lawmakers failed to reach a compromise despite two hours of negotiations.

The S.C. House wants seven interim trustees. The state Senate wants five.

The House wants the state treasurer and comptroller general to join legislative leaders and Gov. Nikki Haley in picking temporary board members. The Senate wants to exclude the treasurer and comptroller.

S.C. State has amassed a deficit of more than $17 million in overdue bills and state loans, a deficit expected to grow to $23.5 million by the end of June, a financial audit said. The Orangeburg school’s financial troubles stem from its failure to cut its budget as the number of students dwindled at the state’s only historically black public college. The school’s accreditation also is at risk because of its money woes. Accreditors placed S.C. State on probation last year.

“We're fiddling as Rome is burning,” state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg Democrat on the conference committee, said Tuesday.

Both bills call for the interim trustees to remain in place until 2018, when lawmakers elect new permanent board members.

But three House members on the conference committee insisted on their plan, saying it would take the expertise of the state’s top financial officials to fix the money mess.

That created a stalemate as the three senators on the committee pushed for a smaller number of interim trustees, saying that would attract better candidates.

Sen. Brad Hutto, an Orangeburg Democrat who chairs the conference committee, said committee members should not get hung up on who appoints trustees. He said anyone appointing the new trustees should “sever the relations” with those new board members, leaving them to turn around the 119-year-old college.

The committee deadlocked 3-3 in a pair of votes on each others’ plans. The panel plans to meet again Wednesday.

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