South Carolina's ardently anti-debt governor has OK'd $1B in borrowing, bit by bit

Lifestyle and Budget Associated Press

Gov. Nikki Haley helped kill a plan by fellow Republicans in the South Carolina House to borrow $500 million for building projects, accusing them of running up the state's "credit card" debt. Yet Haley herself has approved more than $1 billion in state-backed borrowing as head of South Carolina's financial oversight board, according to an Associated Press review.

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Haley, who has repeatedly dismissed suggestions she's seeking higher office, first slammed the borrowing idea last month as she criticized the Obama administration while touting her conservative credentials. She also likened state Republican leaders who haven't backed her income tax-cut plan to Washington spendthrifts.

Her opposition helped scuttle the borrowing proposal during a chaotic House budget debate.

"We don't want any more debt. Whether it is half a billion or a quarter if (sic) a billion in debt, the taxpayers don't want it," she said on Facebook on March 12, hours before House leaders moved to reject their own plan.

Since Haley took office, the five-member Budget and Control Board she chairs has approved funding more than $1.1 billion worth of new projects at South Carolina's public colleges through bonds, mostly at the University of South Carolina and Clemson, the AP found. That includes Wednesday's vote that let Clemson borrow $69.5 million to renovate Littlejohn Coliseum.

Though most of that $1.1 billion is considered the universities' debt, backed by tuition or fees, the state is still ultimately responsible.

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Haley's debt dance has incensed lawmakers in her own party and those across the aisle.

"Her goal is the national stage and I'm not sure what exactly yet, but it's apparent she wants to use the General Assembly to get there," GOP Rep. Mike Pitts said after Haley first began berating lawmakers over the bond proposal.

The governor, said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, is a "selfish, vindictive narcissist who is more concerned about her own future political ambitions than the state of South Carolina."

Rutherford called Haley a hypocrite, noting that in 2013, Haley eagerly signed a bill that borrowed $120 million for Boeing's expansion plans in North Charleston. Borrowing is also a major component of the 2013 road-funding bill Haley touts as a major accomplishment of her first term.

"Bonds are meant for big infrastructure needs, big economic development infrastructure, big road infrastructure, and things that are not the normal course of business," Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said in response. She also called Rutherford's comments "hate speech."

However, an AP review of Budget and Control Board documents since January 2011 shows Haley has also approved paying for small projects such as new fire alarm systems, handicap-access upgrades and roof repair through bonding.

The $1.1 billion tally excludes votes to refinance existing debt to benefit from lower interest rates. It also excludes federally enabled, tax-exempt borrowing the board approved for businesses and nonprofits such as hospitals and private colleges. The two borrowing packages Haley voted against, totaling $260 million, fell into that category, according to meeting minutes.

Haley has repeatedly singled out Ways and Means Chairman Brian White and criticized his committee's proposal, more than half of which would have gone to technical colleges and universities, as funding "wish list" items through a secretive process.

White contends the list was developed from agencies' presentations during budget hearings. He called Haley's repeated use of the credit card analogy disappointing.

"It's not a credit card. It's much like buying a house or adding onto your house — taking a mortgage out," said White, R-Anderson: The idea was to fund infrastructure needs while interest rates remain near historic lows.

State spending on debt would not have risen, since old debt is being paid off, he said. The Legislature hasn't passed a bond bill in 15 years.

Last week, Haley told a room full of technical college presidents that her opposition was not about the projects on the list. She also said she could support a different bond package.

"The reason the bond bill failed is because it was a bill that was not thoughtfully processed," Haley said at a S.C. Technical College System luncheon. "I didn't know what you did or didn't ask for. ... If there is a bond bill that is thought out, we will do that."

That stunned White.

"After her saying you must pay as you go, to hear this is quite shocking," he said.