buying votes

Gov Nikki HaleyThe eagerness that South Carolina’s Haley Administration showed in seeking federal disaster assistance during this month’s Great Ice Storm makes one wonder whether there is any sense to what kind of federal money is OK to take and what isn’t.

You’ll recall that as hundreds of thousands of people lost power and sat in dark homes growing ever colder, Gov. Nikki Haley rightfully said South Carolina was in a state of emergency and requested the federal government to officially designate it as an emergency. The move, approved the same day by President Obama, opened the state for lots of federal assistance — generators, bottled water, meals and more. Who would pay? The feds would pay 75 percent and the state would make up the rest. In other words, it was a three-to-one match to speed assistance.

So if you’re keeping score, it’s fine to take money that helps everyone get over a bad storm.

What about the $2 billion in stimulus money that the state eventually received to help plug shortfalls during the Great Recession? Although then Gov. Mark Sanford railed and steamed about why the state should refuse the money, the General Assembly, facing millions in shortfalls, grudgingly took the money. Then-state Rep. Nikki Haley voted for the money at first, but opposed it on final passage.

So despite a lot of political wrangling, the state took the money, which allowed South Carolina to not fire teachers, state troopers and prison guards, among many other things.

Score: Take the money, 2. Don’t take the money, 0.

Some other issues:

  • Unemployment bailout. Also during the recession, the state accepted nearly $1 billion in federal loans to bail out its unemployment insurance coffers, which ran dry because legislators earlier changed a formula to keep rates low for employers.
  • Port deepening in Charleston. The state has put aside millions, but it will match even more millions expected from the feds.
  • Highway bills. The state Department of Transportation in 2011 had to turn to the feds to ask for advance payments to pay some bills it couldn’t.

Score: Take the money, 5. Don’t take the money, 0.

In fact, if you look at the state’s total budget, South Carolina accepts about $2 billion more in federal money each year than it does through its own tax structure. Here are some of the big ticket items the feds paid for — and we accepted — in the 2012 fiscal year:

  • Medicaid assistance: $2.9 billion.
  • Food stamps: $1.7 billion
  • Road grants: $776 million
  • Hospital subsidies for caring for poor: $326 million
  • School services for handicapped: $273 million

Bottom line: As a state, we receive more than $7.7 billion a year in money from federal sources — money that we paid in federal taxes that comes back to help us here.
But what won’t we take money for? Medicaid expansion and an education grant.

Last year, the legislature, prodded by Haley, refused to accept $11 billion over seven years to expand Medicaid to pay for health insurance for the poorest of South Carolinians. Not only was it money we already pay into federal coffers that would have been returning to the Palmetto State, but it would have been free for a couple of years and required a $1 match for every $9 received in the long run (much better than the 3:1 deal for disaster recovery.)

In 2011, state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais also refused to apply for $143 million in new federal funding available to pay for more teachers. So what happened? Our share went to other states.

Is there a rhyme or reason to what we’ll take and what we’ll fight? This seems to be the formula:

  • If it is something we’ve taken for a long time, we’ll take it.
  • Or if it is something that helps a broad range of people, including the rich and middle class, we’ll take it.
  • But if it’s something new that helps poor people, such as Obamacare or more teachers pushed by a president that many in the General Assembly don’t like, we won’t take it.

Overall answer: It’s all politics. Who would have figured?

Editor's note: This story originally published at Feature image from (public domain); chart provide by the author sourced from the SC Office of State Budget.
Andy Brack

Andy Brack

Andy Brack is a syndicated columnist in South Carolina and the publisher of Statehouse Report. Brack, who holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also publishes a weekly newsletter about good news in the Charleston area, Charleston Currents. A former U.S. Senate press secretary, Brack has a national reputation as a communications strategist and Internet pioneer. Brack, who received a bachelor’s degree from Duke University, lives in Charleston, S.C. with his daughters, a dog and a badass cat.

Brack’s new book, “We Can Do Better, South Carolina,” is now available in paperback via Amazon.