State House

South Carolina’s $1.8 Billion Surplus Saga: Origin Story

Now we know why a clique of state senators blocked last year’s vote on a new comptroller general …

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This time last year, former state representative Kirkman Finlay III was amassing votes en route to becoming the next comptroller general of South Carolina. The brusque, bearded businessman from Columbia, S.C. had picked up 105 commitments out of the 170 members of the S.C. General Assembly – well above the 86-vote threshold necessary to win the election.

Following the embarrassing resignation of former S.C. comptroller Richard Eckstrom – whose office failed to account for a $3.5 billionanomaly” in the state budget – Finlay vowed to “restore trust to this office.” He also pledged to immediately perform “a complete audit” of Eckstrom’s office – and make the findings of that audit available to the public.

The problem? To win an election, there has to be an election. And in this case, there was no election.

Recognizing Finlay was about to roll into office – and crack the state’s books open for a thorough public inspection – a clique of status quo senators hoping to keep things on the down low conspired to block the vote. Led by Larry Grooms, this group sought to install its own comptroller – career bureaucrat Mike Shealy – thus keeping any additional financial “anomalies” securely under wraps.

And keeping any money associated with them securely in lawmakers’ back pockets …

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Once it became clear Finlay had amassed an insurmountable lead over Shealy, Grooms and his allies realized the gig was up. They used procedural obstructionism to their advantage – and simply refused to schedule an election. In doing so, they reverted to the modus operandi of the playground spoilsport: “If we can’t win, no one wins.”

Least of all taxpayers, it would appear …

This fit of pique allowed the comptroller position to be filled by “Republican” governor Henry McMaster – who promptly installed Democrat Brian J. Gaines. It also put the kibosh on Finlay’s planned audit – and the ensuing revelation that taxpayers were sitting on a $1.8 billion surplus.

Eleven months later, our media outlet exclusively reported on this unexpected windfall – insisting every penny of it be returned to taxpayers.

“Individuals, taxpayers, and small businesses are struggling mightily right now,” I noted at the time. “And while permanent tax cuts are infinitely preferable to one-time rebates, this pot of money could be a lifeline for these taxpayers and businesses – and the people who are relying on them to make ends meet.”

Indeed, an estimated 1.44 million working South Carolinians could be in line for rebates of as much as $1,250 apiece were lawmakers to return this latest “anomaly” to them in its entirety.

Finlay, who is currently running for the S.C. House, has also called for the money be returned to taxpayers.

“Absolutely,” Finlay said. “This is the people’s money. It belongs to them.”

(Click to View)

Former state representative Kirkman Finlay is seen during a House of Representatives session in Columbia, S.C. (Travis Bell/STATEHOUSE CAROLINA)

As for Grooms? Despite a growing number of his GOP colleagues in the Senate urging taxpayer rebates, the veteran “conservative” is intent on spending this money. He is also leading an effort to blame the accounting error on state treasurer Curtis Loftis (even though Loftis is not the state’s accountant).

“The Treasurer is the state’s bank and responsible for investing funds, whereas the comptroller general is the state’s accountant,” Loftis noted last week in a letter (.pdf) to lawmakers.

Loftis, incidentally, has also called on the money to go back to taxpayers.

From the beginning of this saga, I have said I am “less concerned with how this pot of money came to be and more concerned with what is to become of it.” For those of you keeping score at home, “Republican” supermajorities in Columbia, S.C. are blowing through a record $38.8 billion in the current fiscal year budget – and are set to blow through a record $40.1 billion in the coming fiscal year.

Are outcomes in the Palmetto State improving along with these massive new investments in government? Of course not.

GOP politicians continue to campaign as “conservatives,” yet they have been growing government faster than taxpayers’ ability to pay for it for decades, repeatedly ignoring calls for broad-based income tax relief while consistently embracing bloated, ineffectual bureaucracies and failed crony capitalist schemes.

Putting this money back in taxpayers’ pockets is what matters most right now. But the back story on how – and why – Grooms and his allies tried to keep this secret surplus under wraps just got a lot more interesting.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

(Travis Bell Photography)

Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina and before that he was a bass guitarist and dive bar bouncer. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven (soon to be eight) children.

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7 comments

Randy April 1, 2024 at 2:42 pm

The State’s accountant is a Democrat? In SC? Appointed by a Republican Gov?

Having been a banker for 29 years I can tell you the system wide accounting is not done by the investment and money managers. It is done by the accounting team in a different building and probably a different town.

The Treasurer needs to resist the demand that he do the accounting as that keeps the separation of duties correct. It is his job to track cash and investments.

Reply
GameCock6 April 1, 2024 at 2:45 pm

The Senate wants control of that money.
They don’t want anyone to know what they do with your tax money. Loftis is one of the few in cola that looks after the taxpayers .

Reply
Anonymous April 1, 2024 at 4:18 pm

What a witch-hunt…I wish the Senate would show real leadership and convene a working group of those involved to hammer through this issue, rather than demonizing one of our great Republican officials.

Reply
Charles April 1, 2024 at 4:31 pm

I heard this is all about covering up the Senator Leatherman back door spending habits that his friends and business partners enjoyed. they probably hid money under the mattress for their retirements and friends and families.
I wish they had fixed the roads!
Fix the roads !
Fix the roads!
Fix the roads!

Reply
Goody3 Top fan April 1, 2024 at 4:57 pm

IF – and that’s huge IF -we get a rebate when that $1.8 billion (Carl Sagan -“Billyuns and billyuns”) is divvied up, you can send mine to the Satterfield boys. They are salt-of-the-earth young men whose Mama raised them right – loving Jesus. AND practicing what He preached – “Love they neighbor” as well as “Turn the other cheek.”

I have admired how they’ve comported themselves since this circus began.

Reply
Conte April 1, 2024 at 6:59 pm

Loftis has been a straight shooter for a long time. I trust him over a Senate that does not have to run statewide.
The senate is trying to overturn an election and that sux.

Reply
A Townie April 1, 2024 at 8:23 pm

Never trust the legislature.

Reply

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