Gov. Sanford's Lonely Stand On Principle
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford got miles of publicity -- and a leg up on other potential Republican presidential candidates -- by railing against the stimulus bill and then balking at accepting some of the funds designated for his state. In fact, he's said yes to most of his state's $8 billion allotment (a figure that includes South Carolina residents' share of federal tax cuts that he had say so over), but he did turn down $100 million for extended unemployment benefits (too many strings attached, he said), and he's still fighting over another $700 million.
At issue is $700 million earmarked for education and law enforcement that Sanford wants to use instead for paying down the state's debt. Stanford asked for permission to reprogram the funds, but the Obama administration said no. Sanford then applied for most of the stimulus package keeps insisting he won't take it unless the state legislature writes a check for the same amount to pay down the debt. In an interview with The State, Sanford said that could take 18 months to resolve, enough of a delay to defeat the purpose of the stimulus.
As S.C. Democratic Rep. James Clyburn likes to say, paying down the debt in a recession is akin to conserving water when the house is burning down. First things, first. The debt can wait. But Sanford says there is a principle involved, and he doesn't want his state school system to get used to living high on the hog, and then insist the state take over when the Feds are done. He apparently thinks there's no chance that the economy will recover enough to boost the state's own revenues. Or else he just has no intention of giving schools or law enforcement more state help.
Sanford is getting flak from all over the state, so much so that it's threatening all the other elements in his agenda, including a push for corporate tax cuts. (He called for cuts in his state budget but interestingly did not call for paying down the debt.) His stand for fiscal discipline is winning him plaudits nationwide among conservative Republicans, the very people who will be most influential in picking the next presidential nominee. (The only other governor bucking the education funding is Alaska's Sarah Palin -- another possible 2012 presidential candidate and darling of conservative circles. But she, too, is facing pressure from the state legislature and signaling a compromise may be possible.)
Sanford says he's not running for president, but won't rule it out. He said in the State interview that he's doing what he thinks is right and so be it if that means he's unpopular. But it takes a certain arrogance to think you're right when everyone else in the state seems to disagree -- especially when your state has an unemployment rate of 11%, when 1,500 teaching positions hang in the balance and your own law enforcement czar says losing the money will be devastating.