COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford on Wednesday became the first governor to reject some of his state's share of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus money, spurning $700 million that he said would harm his state's residents in the long run.
Sanford, a Republican who served in Congress in the 1990s, made his announcement at three sites across South Carolina in a daylong flight tour that fed speculation that he's eyeing a 2012 presidential run.
South Carolina's Republican-controlled General Assembly is poised to rebuff Sanford and seek the stimulus money on its own.
Republican legislators who've clashed with Sanford for years over his radical anti-spending stances joined Democrats in an overwhelming vote Monday to include $350 million in stimulus money in the 2009-10 state budget.
Sanford turned down the federal money despite new data showing that his state's unemployment rate had risen to 10.4 percent, the second highest in the country.
"We don't think it's a good idea to spend money that you don't have," Sanford said in Columbia.
Claiming that the stimulus money would destabilize South Carolina's economy, Sanford said, "We need to look longer term and much more holistically at the notion of economic stimulus."
He says that the $700 million he's turning down would harm his state's residents in the long run by increasing the federal budget deficit and building expectations for government programs that can't be sustained.
When he was asked how he could reject federal money when his state's unemployment rate was cresting 10 percent, he responded: "There will be no immediate answer. . . . Reforming state government: that can lead to job growth in the state."
Sanford denied that his decision is tied to his political aspirations.
"I've got a 15-year pattern of doing exactly this kind of thing," he said.
Sanford's rejection of stimulus money is largely symbolic: Republican and Democratic leaders of the state's General Assembly say that the legislature will seek the money in his stead.
James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat who's the majority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, crafted a clause in the $787 billion stimulus bill that enables state legislatures to bypass governors who reject the money.
Clyburn, who earlier accused anti-stimulus Southern governors of insulting blacks by spurning stimulus money they need, criticized Sanford's rejection of the money.
"As South Carolina's unemployment rate is rising to double digits, parents are losing their jobs and families are losing their homes," Clyburn said. "Governor Sanford will sleep well at night because he has improved his 'conservative record' and raised his national profile."
In the last three months, Sanford's criticism of the stimulus plan has transformed him from a conservative Republican governor little known outside South Carolina to a powerhouse with a growing profile among party stalwarts nationwide.
Sanford, 48, urged 1,000 activists, as they gathered in late February at the Ronald Reagan Banquet in Washington, to be prepared to lose in the defense of their beliefs, and to feel good about it; to "be happy warriors," as he put it.
"Would you be willing to support a cause or a candidate that is likely to lose?" Sanford asked conventioneers at the Conservative Political Action Committee's annual gathering.
His tough stimulus stance has garnered him national TV interviews, opinion columns in The Wall Street Journal and articles about him in other prominent publications.
Sanford's ascent can be traced to Dec. 1, when he challenged Obama directly over the then-president-elect's stimulus plan at a meeting with the nation's governors in Philadelphia.
Since then, a handful of other governors — all Republicans, all talked about as possible 2012 presidential candidates — have joined Sanford in saying that they'd reject at least some of their states' stimulus shares.
The stimulus package is worth up to $8 billion to South Carolina, including $2.5 billion in new tax cuts, $1 billion in extra Medicaid payments, $566 million for education, $558 million in unemployment benefits and $463 million for building or repairing highways and bridges.
Thanks mainly to legislative bypasses that Clyburn crafted, Sanford says he controls only $700 million in stimulus money.
Charlie Black, a prominent Republican consultant who was a senior adviser to Sen. John McCain's losing White House bid last year, said that Sanford's TV appearances and chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association had heightened his visibility should he choose to run for president.
"He's very popular," Black said. "His brand of conservatism emphasizing fiscal conservatism is very popular with our grass roots."
(O'Connor reports for The State. Rosen reported from Washington.)
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