COLUMBIA — South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday vetoed a bill that lawmakers had passed unanimously in their efforts to undo a permit allowing Georgia to expand its Savannah port.
The measure would retroactively suspend the Department of Health and Environment Control’s ability to make dredging decisions in the Savannah River. Legislators hoped it would strengthen their case in court, and supporters of the measure expect the veto to be overridden.
The action “amounts to unconstitutional legislative overreaching into an agency’s ruling,” Haley wrote in her four-paragraph veto message. She said the bill “reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about the administrative process.”
She said only DHEC can issue the water quality certifications and notes a 2010 opinion from former Attorney General Henry McMaster. Such opinions don’t carry the weight of law.
The Republican has come under fire for asking the DHEC board she appointed to hear Georgia’s appeal last fall, after staff denied the water quality certification. Minutes before the appeal, the agency reached a settlement with the Georgia Ports Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“When you pick up the phone and try to circumvent DHEC’s original ruling is really where the problem occurred,” Rep. Jim Merrill, the measure’s main sponsor, said in response to the misunderstanding comment.
Legislators complained that DHEC’s decision gives an unfair competitive advantage to a rival port over Charleston, which is also racing to deepen its harbor.
Legislators also complained that the permit kills plans for a port in Jasper County, miles closer to the Atlantic Ocean, that’s supposed to be a 50-50 project with Georgia.
The issue has united Republican legislators and environmentalists.