By David Epstein
Try as he might to leave stimulus money on the table, it appears likely that South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford will be force-fed $700 million from the federal government. On Monday, Sanford lost in his attempt to have a federal court, as opposed to South Carolina’s Supreme Court, hear two lawsuits that seek to force him to accept the stimulus money.
South Carolina is facing a projected $871 million budget deficit, and Sanford has stood fast in his assertion that he would accept $700 million in fiscal stabilization money—a subset of stimulus funding that is largely earmarked for education—only if he could use it to pay down existing debt. The state legislature defied Sanford and budgeted the money for education.
Sanford argued that the federal government empowered governors to use the stabilization money, so he felt he would be better off pleading his case before a federal judge. But on Monday, U.S. District Judge Joseph Anderson ruled that the lawsuits—one brought by two students and the other by the South Carolina Association of School Administrators—would remain in state court. The South Carolina Supreme Court will take up the lawsuits on Wednesday and is expected to rule that South Carolina must accept the money. The state legislature has already budgeted $350 million of it for 2009. “It looks like we will be bound to spend that money,” Sanford told reporters after the federal court ruling. He maintained that he thinks spending the money on schools will simply delay an impending crisis for two years, but said that he will abide by the state court’s decision.
In bypassing the governor’s authority, the South Carolina legislature took advantage of the “Clyburn workaround amendment,” a provision in the stimulus bill advocated by Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) that allows state legislatures to sidestep a governor to appropriate stimulus money. Clyburn introduced the provision when Sanford began to speak out about not accepting some stimulus money.
For Sanford, the legal battle has been not just about the stimulus money but about executive power in South Carolina as well. When he announced his lawsuit last month, Sanford said, “The question you’ve got to ask yourself is if we allow the legislative branch to come in and usurp power that has been granted through a federal law, where are we in terms of balance of power in this state?”