NEW YORK – South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has been the leading voice among Republican governors who have criticized President Barack Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus plan as a pork-laden boondoggle that will plunge the country further into debt. It's won him praise from many conservatives and boosted his national profile, fueling speculation he will run for president in 2012.
But the governor's announcement this week that he may reject nearly a quarter of the money headed to South Carolina has stirred criticism in the state and elsewhere that he has placed his own political future ahead of the needs of the state's most vulnerable citizens.
Several GOP governors, including Rick Perry of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Haley Barbour of Mississippi, have said they would reject a portion of the money that would expand unemployment benefits to those not currently eligible to receive them. Sanford says he will also reject those funds, but he has threatened to go much further, requesting a waiver to spend some $700 million targeted for education and other programs to pay down some of the state's debt instead.
"I have come to conclude that it would be a mistake to simply accept the money as offered," Sanford wrote to state legislators in announcing his decision. "When one is in a hole, the first order of business is to stop digging."
Sanford, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, has steadfastly denied that his actions regarding the stimulus have been politically motivated, noting that he has taken a hard line on tax and spending issues since 1994, when he was first elected to Congress. He was elected governor in 2002.
"I've got a 15-year pattern of doing exactly this kind of thing," Sanford said.
But his announcement came the same week that South Carolina's unemployment rate shot to 10.4 percent, the second highest in the nation. With those dire figures as a backdrop, national Democrats — keenly aware of Sanford's rising national stature — piled on.
The Democratic National Committee planned to run ads on several stations in South Carolina next week accusing Sanford of "putting politics ahead of health care, jobs and schools." In an e-mail blast to reporters Thursday, the DNC assembled a collection of national and state news stories criticizing Sanford's action.
Even Democratic governors got in the game, with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley issuing a statement decrying Sanford's "fringe" stance.
"Every state should be laser-focused right now on one issue: jobs, jobs, jobs," said O'Malley, vice chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. "This rejection is less about the people of South Carolina than it is Sanford's political ambitions," O'Malley added.
South Carolina's senior senator, Republican Lindsey Graham, voted against the stimulus. But he said the state should take the money if it's a choice between the dollars going to South Carolina or going somewhere else.
But he says that may not be possible if Sanford rejects the money.
Though South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, inserted a provision into the final stimulus bill that is meant to allow legislatures to override governors on accepting the stimulus money, Graham said Friday that the final language in the bill could be interpreted in a way that Sanford would still have to move to apply for some of the stimulus money. Under that scenario, the legislature could not override the governor.
Clyburn issued a frustrated statement in response.
"I would hope the various leaders of this state would spend as much time and energy finding ways to bring relief to South Carolina's families rather than looking for creative ways to get around the federal help that has been made available and that other states are using very effectively," he said.
Clyburn also criticized Sanford on Thursday for a comment he made at a news conference in South Carolina likening Obama's economic stimulus efforts to the hyperinflationary economy in Zimbabwe, one of Africa's most corrupt governments.
"What took the man to Zimbabwe?" Clyburn said in Washington. "Someone should ask him if that's really the best comparison. ... How can he compare this country's situation to Zimbabwe?"
Sanford's effort has even irked some Republican lawmakers in the state, who had made plans to use at least $350 million of the money for state budget items before learning of the governor's decision.
"What I think's happening here is he has made headlines again, national headlines, and that is what he is after," said state Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, a Republican who introduced a measure Thursday that would allow the Legislature to circumvent Sanford's actions.
"It's my intent to take every dollar we can get," Leatherman said, calling Sanford's efforts "tomfoolery."
Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University, said Sanford's position was "very consistent" with how he's governed in South Carolina and said there was a national constituency that would find his approach appealing.
"I think there are limits to being so ideological, but as you get into national politics, it's a way of appealing to very strong fiscal conservatives," Black said. "They are a large part of the Republican Party, but it's not clear they are a majority."
Friday, March 13, 2009