SC Senate reluctantly approves borrowing $550M for port
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina senators on Wednesday approved a proposal to borrow up to $550 million to expand the port in Charleston with more railroads and a barge that could carry cargo from one terminal to another.
Before voting 45-1 in favor, the Senate spent parts of four days debating whether the state should issue bonds to a port it helps runs, but doesn’t fully operate. That overwhelming vote hid the struggle many senators had in supporting the project.
Supporters pushed the proposal as a statewide benefit. The new rail lines would expand how much cargo can be shipped to and from the port and remove truck traffic off interstates. BMW has said the health of the Charleston port is vital to its 27-year-old plant in Greer. Port officials said the barge would eliminate hundreds of truck trips a day shuffling cargo between terminals.
There were a number of reluctant yes votes. It took a compromise approved Wednesday that would require the South Carolina Ports Authority to pay $1 per container starting three years after it gets the money until it has paid off $150 million of the bonds to finally end the debate. That figure represents the amount to build the barge system that some lawmakers weren’t sure was needed.
The port bill was backed by some of the state’s longest-serving and most powerful senators, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman.
But the pushback came from senators who felt the Ports Authority wasn’t clearly explaining what it needed and maybe even avoiding some members entirely.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey reminded his colleagues that the proposal would likely be changed in the House and come back to them, providing a second chance to alter or even reject it if authority officials aren’t more forthright.
“The port needs to come in. They need to answer hard questions. They need to explain themselves,” said Massey, R-Edgefield.
The bond proposal now goes to the House, where the chairman of the committee that handles spending matters said he thinks there is widespread support to help the port, but some disagreement on whether the money should be borrowed or just paid outright if state revenues continue to exceed predictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m not ready to forgo any option,” House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said Wednesday.
The Senate’s longest-serving member, Sen. Nikki Setzler, also backed the bonds. But the West Columbia Democrat who was first elected in 1976 got senators to vote to hold the officials of the Ports Authority more accountable by requiring them to report about their financial status, who they hire and fire and how they spend their money. Currently, the Port Authority is not totally considered a public body nor is it a private firm.
Between the struggles at state-owned utility Santee Cooper and the inflation of the economic impact of moving the Carolina Panthers practice facility to South Carolina, senators are a lot more skeptical than they used to be, Setzler said.
“When you come to this Senate floor now, you’re coming with a backdrop of Santee Cooper and the Panthers,” Setzler said. “You aren’t going to be patted on the back, although you do a great job, and be approved. You are going to have to be accountable.”
The $550 million is about 5% of the state budget in which lawmakers have control over spending, but the state would pay back the bonds at $43 million a year over 15 years. South Carolina last issued bonds to this scale in 1999 when the state borrowed $750 million for school buildings.
Supporters were able to get senators who represent the far southern part of the state to back the bill, brokering a deal on a joint port proposal with Georgia in Jasper County, South Carolina, near the mouth of the Savannah River.
The Port Authority would turn over its 50% stake in the land for the proposed port to Jasper County, so they could work with Georgia on developing the site.
Leatherman argued the port needs the money as soon as possible to keep the momentum of a $400 million project to deepen Charleston Harbor. That would allow for the world’s largest ships to continue to use the facility. The port is also opening a new terminal named for the Florence Republican in honor of his 37 years in the Senate.
“I think we need to go ahead and give them what they asked for. Let them make our port the premier port on the East Coast and the Gulf Coast,” Leatherman said.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.