COLUMBIA — South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford said he wasted no time filing a federal lawsuit to trump legislators Wednesday after they overrode a veto and required him to seek $700 million in federal stimulus cash. He said the vote to force him to seek the cash was unconstitutional and that he would fight it in court.
Sanford has argued against the $787 billion federal stimulus law for months and said he'd only request bailout cash if it was used to offset state debt. The White House twice rejected that idea and told Republican Sanford the money has to first be used to avoid budget cuts in education programs. Along the way, Sanford's national political profile has soared amid speculation of a 2012 White House bid.
Sanford said the Legislature was running "roughshod over today's and tomorrow's taxpayers by overriding" the stimulus veto and that he sued in federal court in Columbia Wednesday night. His spokesman would not make a copy of the lawsuit available or provide details of who Sanford was suing.
The GOP-dominated Legislature was desperate for the cash. The current year's budget started out at $7 billion and was slashed by more than $1 billion as the recession drove the state's unemployment rate to among the nation's highest and forced sharp reductions in public school and college spending.
The budget that landed on his desk last week had $5.7 billion in state money and relied on half the $700 million the state's slated to get during the next two years to slow further cuts in public schools and the need for double-digit tuition increases.
In response, Sanford told legislators they needed to rewrite the entire budget and vetoed the spending plan and the requirement that he seek the federal stimulus cash within five days.
Legislators spent most of Wednesday overriding the vetoes, with the Senate voting 34-11 and the House 93-23 to require Sanford to seek the stimulus money.
The state's top educator said Sanford was obstructing government's fundamental job of educating children. "This isn't an economics class. It's real life, and real people are hurting," said Education Superintendent Jim Rex. "Governor Sanford is basically standing in the doorways of our schools while teachers are losing jobs and districts are cutting effective programs."
In a prepared statement, Sanford said the stimulus spending "is incredibly irresponsible for the way it ignores the impact on future generations and for the way it puts our state on shaky financial footing with a nearly $1 billion budget hole two years from now."
Sanford had put off reporters who pressed him on that issue for days. But it was a course that legislators and Sanford's supporters long expected. And Sanford didn't want to wait to be sued.
"We know that a suit will be filed against us on this issue, and as such we've filed a suit tonight in response," Sanford said. "We believe the legislature's end-around move on the stimulus won't pass constitutional muster, and if it were allowed to stand, it would have far-reaching implications for future governors of this state and for governors of other states as well."
The budget law required Sanford to seek the money within five days, or by Tuesday.
"Unless he went to court and got an injunction, he's breaking the law of the state," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence. "I'm confident this governor is not going to break the laws of this state. He took an oath to uphold the laws of this state."
Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican and former Sanford chief of staff, said the governor had few choices and would encourage him to sue.
"I don't think the governor can simply do nothing," Davis said. "My opinion would be that the governor is not going follow what the General Assembly has directed him to do. His recourse is to go to federal court and seek determination as to whether he has to do it."
But legislators said it's an issue that needs to be worked out in the state Supreme Court and not languish for weeks before a federal judge with a July 1 deadline looming to seek the stimulus money.
"The governor wants to shut down state government," Leatherman said. "He wants to get this tied up in federal court and knows that it could take a pretty long period of time. ... I think he knows that if we don't get the money by July 1, it could shut down state government."
Legislators defended their requirement to seek federal money by saying they routinely require agencies and the governor to impose fines, fees and other methods to get the money the state needs to operate. The "real issue here is can the federal court give more power to the governor than our Constitution does," Leatherman said.
Davis said it was time for Sanford and legislators to resolve their issues without dragging it out for in protracted legal fight.
"You've got to be kidding," Leatherman said, noting the Legislature will adjourn Thursday. "Somebody's pipe dreaming if they think we can sit down with the governor and come up with an agreement in two d
South Carolina legislators are overriding Gov. Mark Sanford's vetoes of the $5.7 billion state budget and his refusal to accept federal stimulus funds.