A bipartisan group of S.C. lawmakers say they plan to push to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for years of delayed maintenance at many state-owned buildings and at the state’s colleges.
The stage was set for borrowing — last done by the state almost 20 years ago — when legislative budget writers pulled $20 million for college renovations from the state budget that took effect July 1.
Why pull the money from the budget? Because legislators knew they planned to borrow it — and more — when they return to Columbia on Jan. 1.
Several lawmakers said there have been previous conversations about a borrowing bill with Republican Gov. Henry McMaster. The reaction then from the Governor’s Office was positive, they said, leaving them optimistic that a deal can be cut to address deferred maintenance when the Legislature returns in January.
Publicly, however, McMaster — seeking a four-year term in November as the nominee of the no-taxes, no-borrowing GOP — is cool to the idea as he tries to appeal to conservatives to keep his job.
McMaster also may have backed himself in a corner during the GOP primary, when he said during a debate that the state already has enough money to meet its needs — despite underfunded K-12 schools, overcrowded prisons and understaffed state agencies unable to hire because, in large part, state wages are so low.
However, McMaster’s Democratic opponent for governor, state Rep. James Smith of Columbia, leaves open the possibility of supporting the right bond bill.
‘The list is long’
Legislators say the need for a borrowing proposal to help pay for costly repairs is indisputable. For years, those repairs were put off at state agencies and colleges as the state cut its budget and struggled to recover from the Great Recession.
Among the needs:
▪ $101.3 million to pay for deferred maintenance at buildings the S.C. Administration Department owns and maintains.
▪ $43 million to repair or upgrade 14 rest stops across the state with “significant” issues, according to the state Department of Transportation.
▪ Money for S.C. colleges and universities. For instance, at the state’s only historically black public college, S.C. State University, some 600-plus dorm rooms and classrooms need renovations that the university — rebounding after financial woes that threatened to close the Orangeburg school — cannot afford to pay for.
“The list is long,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg.
Suffice it to say, “we’ll be debating it (a bond bill) next year,” S.C. House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, told The State last month, holding out hope that McMaster may warm publicly to the idea. “What chief executive does not want their corporation — in this case, South Carolina — to be the best it can be?”
No ‘fluff,’ just repairs
The state has not passed a bond bill in nearly two decades.
Passing a borrowing bill next year will hinge, lawmakers say, on exactly what projects are included in the proposal and transparently coming up with that project list.
In 2017, a House proposal to borrow $500 million crumbled after McMaster threatened to veto it. That proposal included $251 million for college maintenance and $35 million for economic development efforts.
Some lawmakers also scoffed at what they called “fluff” for colleges in the proposal. At the same time, however, they acknowledged there is a need to borrow to maintain deteriorating facilities at some state universities.
For example, $3.5 million was included in the 2017 proposal to replace an aging heating-and-cooling system at USC Aiken. When the bond bill collapsed, that money later was included in the state budget.
Another $8 million was inserted in the 2017 borrowing proposal — out of more than $40 million requested — for information technology upgrades and maintenance at S.C. State. The college later received $3 million in one-time state money for technology upgrades.
The Legislature’s ability to find money in the state’s budget to partially fund repair needs shows a bond bill is not needed, the governor’s spokesman said.
“The General Assembly showed ... you can invest in deferred maintenance projects at state agencies without racking up more debt on the backs of taxpayers,” said McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes. “It would be wholly irresponsible to borrow money the state doesn’t have when the answer is to spend what you can, when you can.”
However, agency heads and college officials — particularly those in charge of the state’s smaller universities — say the money that has been inserted in the state’s budget is not enough to cover the maintenance issues that they need to be addressed.
‘Both parties are spinally challenged’
Some state lawmakers, who opposed previous borrowing plans, say a new bond bill must focus on true needs, not wants, to pass the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Some lawmakers, for instance, objected when money for new projects — such as USC’s proposed new medical school campus — was included in the last bond proposal. This time, they want to focus only on fixing existing buildings that are in danger of suffering even greater damage if they are not repaired, not “pet” projects.
“I would only support a bill that addressed real needs, and did so in a way that is fiscally responsible and advantageous to South Carolina,” said Rep. Smith, who will face McMaster in November’s election for governor.
To win support from Republican fiscal conservatives, a new bond bill also must be put together in “an open, transparent way,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said last month.
Legislators will have a chance to do that in January, when they return to Columbia with neither House nor Senate members facing re-election campaigns in November 2019.
But that window for action is tight, Democrat Cobb-Hunter said.
“We have exactly one session to get a bond bill done because if we don’t do it in 2019, all bets are off,” she said. “We will be right back in an election-year cycle, where not only is the House up for re-election but the Senate is up for re-election (in 2020).
“My experience in the Legislature has taught me that in election years both parties are spinally challenged.”