Politics & Government

‘The pros outweigh the cons’: Why the SC governor’s office is spending $180K on DC office

South Carolina has an extra billion dollars. Here is how Governor McMaster wants to spend it.

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster announced his proposed budget. It focuses heavily on funding education and public safety.
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South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster announced his proposed budget. It focuses heavily on funding education and public safety.

South Carolina is poised to spend $181,000 a year to strengthen its standing in Washington, D.C.

That’s a significant investment at a time when the state is struggling to fund basic needs for South Carolinians, from health care to education to infrastructure. Yet even fiscal conservatives say it could be a worthy investment.

After a nine-year lapse, Gov. Henry McMaster recently decided the state will rejoin the National Governors Association. The bipartisan organization has a professional development component, hosts regular policy conferences and provides resources for understanding how federal legislation and rulemaking affect local issues.

South Carolina will also re-open a federal affairs office the Hall of States, prime real estate across the street from the U.S. Capitol. Jordan Marsh, the political director on McMaster’s 2018 campaign, will represent the state alongside nearly two dozen counterparts from elsewhere in the country.

NGA dues will amount to $106,000 a year, while Marsh’s yearly salary will be $75,000.

In a cabinet meeting last week, McMaster acknowledged the cost, but defended the expense.

“It does cost money to participate, but they have about 100 meetings a year,” McMaster said of the NGA. “They have people on staff and people available to give us information we need on most everything we need information on.

“I urge you to take advantage of (Marsh),” McMaster told his colleagues, “to contact him and don’t be shy because we’re paying for it.”

“In just a few weeks, we’ve seen the benefit of having a presence in Washington D.C.,” McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes wrote in a statement to The State. “It’s given the governor’s office and state agencies an even greater capacity to stay on top of federal issues that affect South Carolina, like funding for the Charleston Harbor Deepening Project and disaster recovery funding.”

Marsh’s presence in Washington is expected to amplify South Carolina in the eyes of the Trump administration, which already has strong connections to the Palmetto State. Symmes said there was no turning point or defining moment where McMaster decided to make the investment.

While this might be a new experience for the current governor’s administration, it’s actually a return to what once was the status quo.

Practically every South Carolina governor in recent memory has at one point been a member of the NGA with a federal affairs office in the Hall of States, with the exception of former Republican Gov. Nikki Haley.

Even Ex-Gov. Mark Sanford, a notorious fiscal hawk, had an NGA membership and a Washington representative, from the time the Republican was sworn into office in 2003 until the spring of 2010, the final year of his second term.

Scott English, Sanford’s former longtime chief of staff, worked in the NGA as South Carolina’s federal affairs director for the first eight months of the Sanford administration. English said one quibble with the NGA was that, in its attempts to get 50 diverse governors to “speak with one voice,” the result was often “somewhat ambiguous, toothless” policy stances.

But, he said, “the pros far outweigh the cons.”

English described an environment in the Hall of States where federal affairs directors used each other as resources and for brainstorming. There was value, he said, in being a short walk from the offices of the members of the S.C. Congressional delegation, or a quick ride to an agency’s headquarters. NGA staffers could also help decipher the impact of federal laws, rules and regulations on any given state.

He could point to a handful of initiatives he was able to pursue for South Carolina by virtue of being in Washington and forging personal relationships with the right people.

English was a liaison between the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., as the federal government and senator negotiated a bill that would require nuclear material cleanup at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.

He also made sure the state didn’t get welfare block grants revoked when the President George W. Bush administration accused South Carolina of not sufficiently demonstrating it was using the funds appropriately.

English said the state actually made the decision to leave the NGA in the 2008, when in the thick of the recession “we just couldn’t justify” the extra expense. But the NGA was sympathetic, ultimately allowing Sanford to remain a member of the NGA for another two years before finally asking for a dues payment. At that point, Sanford shut down the Hall of States office, too.

Haley campaigned in 2010 as an outsider and reformer who would do things differently. When she entered the governor’s office in 2011, staying out of the NGA made sense as she fostered an image of not being beholden to Washington, particularly with Democratic President Barack Obama in the White House.

“There was a trend of governors who did not join the NGA to make some sort of statement. I think that has by and large stopped,” said former Democratic S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges, Sanford’s predecessor who helped pitch McMaster on rejoining the organization.

Hodges said his former federal affairs director in Washington, Michael Tecklenberg — who is now a senior adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — helped coordinate a meeting with the U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary when the state was having difficulty with the agency.

Tecklenberg also made sure South Carolina priorities were reflected in Congressional spending bills. This was still in the days of so-called “earmarks,” where lawmakers were allowed to designate funding for specific, home-state projects, which amplified the need for a representative in Washington.

Rob Godfrey, Haley’s former spokesman and senior adviser, disputed the charge that Haley stayed out of the NGA for political reasons.

“That’s not true,” he said. “It was a matter of responsible budgeting as far as she was concerned, and if you were in tight budget season, as she was in 2011, it just wasn’t something she wanted to make a priority.”

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.