S.C. Statehouse Report
March 7, 2004
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/04.0307.bank.htm

Legislators must keep word on Conservation Bank
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

MARCH 7, 2004 -- When people are asked to name political issues that are most important to them, they list taxes, crime and the economy. Often, they don't mention "environment" - - even though more than 80 percent of Americans want stronger environmental laws, according to the League of Conservation Voters.

The reason, a pollster once explained, is Americans assume no politician would be crazy enough to be anti-environmental. So because people assume most leaders would vote to conserve land and protect habitat, they don't believe politicians would threaten the nation's environmental resources.

Sadly, that's not true. And sadly, a good measure to safeguard land in South Carolina is threatened.

Two years ago with much hullabaloo, the SC General Assembly passed a bill to start the SC Conservation Bank. It was to be a flexible infrastructure fund to allow the state to contribute dollars in innovative ways to buy, give loans or partner with other organizations to protect important land.

At the time, state legislators put off funding until 2004, but gave their word the new bank would be funded at that time. Now with all of the state's budget problems, funding appears to be threatened, conservationists warn.

Prior to this week, SC House budget writers approved a $5.1 million appropriations plan in committee that included funding of the Conservation Bank. But when a $40 million defunding of something called the Second Injury Fund became a political hot potato, they restored its funding. That left a $40 million hole to fill. Word from various sources is they're seriously considering taking all or part of the funding scheduled for the Conservation Bank.

They shouldn't. They'd be breaking their word.



McLEMORE'S WORLD: There outta be a law ...

SCORECARD: Winners and losers of the past week



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The Conservation Bank essentially is a trust fund, explains Chip Campsen, the conservative former Charleston House member who was the architect of the bank. If lawmakers don't fund the bank, they'd essentially be raiding a trust fund. Last year, Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed millions of dollars of spending from similar raids on other conservation trust funds.

It's called a trust fund for a reason - - people trust the state to give money to it and use it for the purposes for which it was created.

Campsen admitted he'd be greatly disappointed if his past colleagues didn't steer the promised money to the Conservation Bank.

"It is something that has brought people together," he said. "It's the one issue on the environmental front that has united everybody from the Realtors, Sierra Club, state Chamber, Democrats and Republicans."

He added that thousands of dollars in seed funding to establish the nuts and bolts of the Conservation Bank were given by corporate America, notably Anheuser-Busch, so the bank would be ready to dole out money to protect land when state funding was in place.

"When corporate America steps up with that sort of charitable intent, it's not something you should pull the rug out from under," Campsen said.

Dana Beach, head of the SC Coastal Conservation League, said many who have been leery of conservation funding in the past have argued the state needed an incentive-based conservation mechanism that would be flexible and creative enough to leverage more non-state dollars to protect land. And that's what they get with the Conservation Bank.

If they don't fund the Bank, "What they'd be doing is taking away the one tool that they said they wanted to create," he said.

Beach said South Carolina historically has done little to protect land because it relied on federal and private dollars. But with the looming retirement of U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings and more development pressures along the coast particularly, it's time for the state to step up to the plate. Already, it's way behind Florida, which spends $300 million per year to conserve land, and North Carolina ($50 million.).

"It was a good idea. It is a good idea. And it is very modest compared to Florida and North Carolina."

South Carolina made a commitment to invest to protect land. State lawmakers need to keep their word. If they don't, they risk upsetting voters who care - - and facilitating the loss of more of South Carolina's special places.

There outta be a law...

This week's cartoon by our Bill McLemore:


Here's a "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" related to various political events from the past week:

Thumbs up

Sanford. Hats off to the governor and others who got the feds to return more than $100 million in Medicaid money. That surely helps with the budget in such a mess.

PSC. Finally, after more than two years, the General Assembly elected new members of the Public Service Commission. Good news: They're more qualified than ever before.

Maybank. Good luck to State Revenue Director Burnie Maybank, who asked for -- and received -- $9 million in new funding with the promise he could deliver $90 million in delinquent tax collections. He'd better -- the state already is spending the money.

Thumbs down

Wilkins. Thumbs down to House Speaker David Wilkins for attempting a blatant power grab following the Govan-Harrison fracas. The speaker says he needs more power to discipline members. First, he shouldn't have to do so. Second, wasn't removing Govan from a major committee a big enough slap to him and the Black Caucus?

School vouchers. Taking public money away from public schools is bad public policy. The governor should know that.

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