COLUMBIA --- Gov. Mark Sanford bought more time Friday to decide whether to request federal stimulus money for South Carolina's impoverished schools, a move that guarantees he'll spend at least a few more weeks dealing with citizen protests, yard signs urging his impeachment and nasty statements from fellow Republicans.
Mr. Sanford began railing loudly against the $787 billion stimulus package before President Obama signed it in February. More recently, he's objected to spending $700 million available to his state for education, a position that's spawned street protests, dire predictions about the future of state schools and criticism from his allies.
South Carolina's share is $2.8 billion over two years, but Mr. Sanford directly controls only the $700 million that's mostly supposed to be used for schools. He wants to use it to pay down debt, but the White House has twice said he can't. Mr. Sanford is the only governor not seeking the mostly education-related money.
Mr. Sanford faced a Friday deadline to request the $700 million, but he bought the state time by filing paperwork to request the larger pool of money to which it's entitled. He'll have until September 2010 to commit to using the money, but he has only weeks to work out deals with budget writers in the GOP-controlled Legislature who want to include the cash in the budget that takes effect July 1.
State education officials say the $700 million over two years would keep hundreds of teachers employed in a state that had the second-highest unemployment rate in February.
About 40 Sanford fans gathered for a counter-demonstration as hundreds of teachers and parents rallied Wednesday outside the Statehouse, carrying signs proclaiming "Pink Slip Sanford" and talking about forestalling cuts that already have slashed education spending.
Patricia Wheat, a grandmother from Lexington, said Mr. Sanford won her support when he pushed for school choice and solidified it when he carried pigs to the doors of the House to protest spending he considers pork.
"I like politicians with chutzpah," she said.
Critics contend Mr. Sanford, the 48-year-old chairman of the Republican Governors Association, is looking to burnish a rising political star to prepare for a 2012 White House bid. He's also playing to the same fan base that grew in his three U.S. House terms as he bucked GOP leadership, at times becoming the lone opponent to popular legislation that would add to federal spending.
Nearly every newspaper in the state has urged him to take the money. Allies such as Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham contend state residents will have to pay federal taxes that will fund the stimulus package, so it might as well be used here.
"I think people are hurting. Because of that, I think we need to take the money," said Hope Rivers, a 36-year-old technical college system worker who attended an anti-Sanford rally with her 6-year-old daughter. s