I first learned of the $30,000 earmark for Irmo Veterans Park weeks after the House had already passed our appropriations bill for the upcoming state budget. It was not in our House budget because we had not been privy to any conversations or requests. Soon after, I read in The State that Governor Haley had included this earmark in her list of “Pork Barrel Spending” and I immediately knew this would put me and Representative Huggins in a difficult spot.
Ever since my first year in office, I have been recognized as a Taxpayer Hero and Friend of the Taxpayer by various groups. The people of Irmo, Chapin and Dutch Fork know my good stewardship of your tax dollars in Columbia and also know that I sustain more vetoes than I override. Friends and neighbors remember that I led the push for Earmark Reform years ago when one of my bills and my discussions with House Leadership resulted in a House rule change that provided transparency (long before roll-call voting and long before my campaign finance reform bill). This push ultimately required House members’ earmarked requests to be listed by dollar amounts, officials’ names, project information and location and the list be placed on our desks before we began voting on the budget.
How does an elected official not support his own community? How does an elected official not support our veterans? Those were questions I wrestled with and knew I would hear from others. I decided to seek guidance from family and constituents and to talk to town leaders.
My father was a combat veteran from Vietnam in the US Navy. Serving from January 1968 to March 1969 in the Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam, my dad had six men on his small Assault Support Patrol Boat that supported the 9th Infantry Division on their operations by transporting them up the small canals to their operation sites. He saw friends pay the ultimate sacrifice for our great country. He knows first -hand about our veterans; because he is one.
Both my grandfathers were veterans, too. My paternal grandfather served in the US Army during World War II while my maternal grandfather served in the US Navy on board the USS Alcyone from 1942 to 1945.
I asked my dad his thoughts and those were simple and clear. A vote to sustain this veto wasn’t about my support of the community or our veterans. This vote was about one concept: do we spend state tax dollars on local projects in elected officials’ communities? A few years ago, there a process was in place to do just that and it was called the Competitive Grants Program. Even after we finally closed that program, there is still a practice used by many politicians who request earmarks directly in the budget.
Are all earmarks bad? Of course not. When state funds are used to benefit our state (even if those funds are directed to only one area or the state), earmarks can be beneficial. It’s when earmarks are used to only benefit one community (and therefore not benefiting our state as a whole) that earmarks get their bad name.
My father-in-law is also a US Marine and I spent time hearing from him last week as well. He agreed with what my dad and I both believed; but I wanted to go outside the family to other veterans to see their thoughts too.
I traded emails with Chapin American Legion Post 193 Commander William Chick. He too agreed that this veto should be sustained and also asked that I sustain many more of the Governor’s vetoes.
This information – directly from veterans and men I respect – supported my belief that I knew how I needed to vote; but I wanted to talk to town leaders, too. I spoke with Mayor Hardy King and also even had breakfast with my deskmate (Rep. Chip Huggins) and Irmo Town attorney, Jake Moore, who had been involved in this earmark request earlier in the year when he wrote a letter to our Senator, the new Pro Tempore of the Senate, John Courson.
Let me publicly say this, when finished, the park will be a great asset for Irmo and our neighbors. I saw the park last week when I went to locate it on Palmetto Wood Parkway. I also want to publicly thank Jake Moore for his dedication to this park, the town, and for his years of service on the Arbor Day Committee. Mr. Moore is helping improve our community with his time and money. His heart is in the right place.
Mr. Moore, Rep. Huggins and I discussed ways we could help this park and Irmo to more appropriately fund any local improvements for our community and neighbors. This $30,000 earmark was not the way to help the park or our veterans. While on merits the Irmo Veterans Park is more worthy than to be called a “pork barrel project”, supporting this earmark would lead to our other House colleagues expecting our support for their local earmarks which would only benefit their constituents by using other state tax dollars.
During our meeting, Mr. Moore shared the potential plans and needs he sees for Irmo and the Midlands Region’s future. Representative Huggins and I shared we could support those planes through local funding and we look forward to working with local governments (Lexington County, Richland County, City of Columbia, Town of Irmo, and Town of Chapin) as well as the SC Parks, Recreation and Tourism for appropriate financial support through those entities.
The Irmo Veterans Park is well on its way to completion after receiving a grant of $50,000 from the state. The park will also benefit from private donations and park-bench memorials and honorariums which Mr. Moore and others are working to raise. Representative Huggins and I can certainly join others in the community by making a financial investment to this worthy effort.
Working together, we will be able to continue the fight to keep state dollars funding state needs as well as continue to support the Irmo community and our veterans by doing the right thing; even when it’s not the easy thing to do.