COLUMBIA --- South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford will try to force the Obama administration to decide whether he can use $700 million in economic stimulus funds to pay down a state debt load he describes as among the worst in the South.
The Republican, who has been criticizing federal bailouts as failing to help the economy, insisted Wednesday that his request isn't a move based on politics. He said it fits with his record as a congressman who opposed increased spending, and he renewed warnings that using the money for state programs would open budget holes when the cash runs out.
"I've got a 15-year pattern of doing exactly this kind of thing," said Mr. Sanford, who is chairman of the Republican Governors Association and rumored as a possible presidential candidate in 2012.
While Mr. Sanford held three news conferences across the state to explain why he's asking the Obama administration to OK his proposal to use $700 million during the next two years to pay off state debt, fellow Republicans said they'll use the money in the budget.
The House gave final approval Wednesday to a $6.6 billion budget that uses $1 billion in stimulus cash -- $350 million of which Mr. Sanford wants to use to pay down debt. Much of the stimulus money in the spending plan that now heads to the state Senate would pay for health care and education, but dire economic forecasts will likely spur more cuts.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman said he'll introduce a resolution today to trump objections Mr. Sanford might have to using the money.
A White House spokeswoman said the administration would wait to hear from Mr. Sanford before commenting.
South Carolina's top-ranking congressman accused Mr. Sanford of playing politics and not trying to aid people in a state that recorded the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation in January.
"I think this is 100 percent political posturing," said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. "You know, if you were looking out for the state, you would be looking out for the people in the state."
But taking the cash, Mr. Sanford said, would run counter to how he's carved his political career. In back-and-forth sessions with his staff, the governor said he came to the conclusion that "fundamentally, I do not believe that it makes sense to spend money that you don't have."
Mr. Sanford warned that using the cash for anything other than debt issues would create longer-term budget problems.
The recession forced $1 billion in cuts to the $7 billion state budget that took effect July 1, gouging health care, public school and college budgets and forcing the state's adult and juvenile detention systems into running deficits.
The first thing the House did in taking up the budget this week was to pass an amendment 108-8 to use stimulus money. The budget approved Wednesday includes federal money Mr. Sanford would rather use to pay off bonds or plug into long-term liabilities, like the state retirement fund.
Mr. Leatherman said that no matter what happens now -- whether the White House rejects Mr. Sanford's debt pay-down plan or the Legislature trumps him -- the governor gets to wash his hands of making stimulus decisions.
"What I think's happening here is he has made headlines again -- national headlines -- and that is what he is after," Mr. Leatherman said.
Although he doesn't like the federal borrowing behind the stimulus, Mr. Leatherman said rejecting the cash is "tomfoolery."
"It's my intent to take every dollar we can get," Mr. Leatherman said. "I'll fight as hard as I can to get every dollar I can for our people because our people are going to wind up paying it back."
Meanwhile, only hours after the House sent Mr. Leatherman its budget, the state's economic forecasting board shaved its revenue estimates by 1 percent for the current fiscal year and 1 percent for the new budget.
Mr. Leatherman said he'll call for the state's financial oversight board to make across-the-board cuts that require agencies to cut $64 million in only the four months remaining in the fiscal year.
For the new budget being crafted, the problems are worse. In order to take the stimulus money, education and health care budgets can't take cuts. That means up to 4 percent in budget cuts for remaining agencies, Mr. Leatherman said.