Originally created 01/13/04

Sanford proposes eliminating funds for state caisson team



CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Gov. Mark Sanford's executive budget would cut money for the state's eight-horse caisson team and likely mean disbanding the unit, which has led the funeral processions of former U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, U.S. Rep. Floyd Spence and police officers killed in the line of duty.

"When you're starting a budget process $350 million in the hole and you're trying to protect and, in many cases, increase funding to those core services government ought to provide - education and health care - difficult decisions need to be made," said Sanford spokesman Will Folks.

Sanford proposes eliminating $100,000 for the team, but the volunteers who run it say they can't raise that much in donations.

"There are certain things that transcend money," said Maj. Steve Riggs, who heads the 15-volunteer unit. "What price do you put on someone who spent their last moments on Earth protecting us?"

Folks said Sanford is not disputing the team is a worthwhile and has promised to help raise the money from private sources.

Riggs doubts Sanford's willingness to help the unit, sworn into service as part of the state adjutant general's office in 1998.

"I've done all that I can do. If it gets cut it's over," said Riggs, who spent $100,000 of his own money to help form the unit. The $100,000 a year in state money pays for feeding, boarding, transporting and outfitting the horses.

The unit has participated in the funerals of about 25 soldiers, police officers and dignitaries. Saturday it carried the casket of Army Capt. Kimberly Hampton, an Easley pilot killed Jan. 2 when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq.

Riggs estimated if the volunteers were paid, the caisson would cost $300,000 a year and a single burial would cost $6,000.

President Bush personally thanked Riggs for his volunteer efforts in July 2002. Sanford, then running for governor, was in the crowd with Riggs to greet the president.

Riggs said he asked Sanford if he would cut the caisson funding if elected. He said Sanford replied the state would lynch him if he did.

"He's in the Reserve, and he's said he wants to be a role model to his children," Riggs said. "What kind of role model cuts one of the last true vestiges of military tradition in the state?"

It's unclear whether lawmakers will approve Sanford's proposal.

When former Gov. Jim Hodges did not include caisson funding in his 2002 budget, Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, made sure the money was inserted.

Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said he would work to make sure the unit has its money. "If we can't provide a caisson for those protecting our freedom and willing to give their lives, I don't understand it," he said.