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SC House reps look to spend $2.5B in federal pandemic aid

August 17, 2021 GMT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina lawmakers are considering all the ways they could spend the $2.5 billion in federal pandemic relief dollars that will soon flow into the state.

A group of House representatives met for the first time Tuesday to learn about how much COVID-19 aid the state is getting and what the money can and can’t be used on. South Carolina senators have formed a separate group to consider how best to use the funds.

We’re not making any decisions today,” said Rep. Bruce Bannister, who chairs the special committee. “This is going to be a fairly in-depth process.”

The relief money comes with some strings: the state can’t put it in pension funds, or use it to offset revenue lost due to a change in tax laws.

But there are many other ways lawmakers can spend the cash, from bolstering water and sewage systems across the state to replacing lost pandemic revenue. The money can also be used to assist households, small businesses and nonprofits, and industries hard-hit by the pandemic such as tourism and hospitality.

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South Carolina is also estimated to receive $188 million to expand broadband across the state’s rural, less connected areas.

As 49 other states begin to roll out broadband with their funds, the cost of fiber-optic cable and labor will tick up, said Nanette Edwards, executive director of the Office of Regulatory Staff.

Edwards, whose agency has mapped broadband availability across the state, encouraged lawmakers to be flexible and consider other technologies to get the internet to more South Carolinians.

Lawmakers also heard about the many other sums of money that cities, municipalities and counties are receiving from various federal programs. Counties will get about $1 billion and the state’s 17 largest cities will receive a total of $191 million.

All but two of South Carolina’s 46 counties have drawn down the first sum of cash available to them, said Josh Rhodes with the South Carolina Association of Counties. Rhodes said the counties have considered myriad plans for the funds, from expanding a jail so it can have the capacity for segregating COVID-19 positive patients to providing premium pay to essential workers.

But towns with less than 50,000 people still don’t have their cash on hand, said Municipal Association of South Carolina Executive Director Todd Glover said: “You can imagine, my phone has been ringing off the hook.”

Federal rules say the state has to ask for that money on behalf of the those municipalities, and South Carolina is just one of three states that hasn’t made that request, Glover said. Gov. Henry McMaster has said he is waiting until closer to the planned fall General Assembly’s special session to finalize how to spend the billions.

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The 254 towns and small cities waiting on $435 million are getting impatient. Those towns want to start the process of drawing down the money sooner than later because bureaucratic requirements down the line could slow the process even further, Glover added.

Brian Gaines with the Executive Budget Office told lawmakers that McMaster and state legislative leaders are working on an overall plan for the money that could include incentivizing local governments to work on certain infrastructure programs by providing state funding.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter said the state should let local leaders make their own decisions.

“I find that a bit troubling,” Cobb-Hunter said. “What we need to be trying to figure out, in my opinion, is how we are going to spend our state portion, and we need to respect local government.”

The state and local governments have until the end of 2024 to spend the coronavirus aid dollars, in most cases.

The Savannah River Site & American Rescue Plan Act Appropriations Ad Hoc Committee is also slated to discuss how to allocate a $600 million settlement from the federal government over plutonium at the Savannah River Site later this year.