The S.C. Legislature included $27 million in the 2019-20 state budget on projects that aren't identified. In the past, such expenditures have turned out to be on legislators' pet projects in their hometowns. 

The annual state budget is supposed to spell out how money is to be spent in the coming year. Indeed, the months-long budget debate is all about which programs will receive how much money, and often-detailed instructions on how those programs will spend that money.

But it doesn’t work that way in all cases.

Last month, Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed 11 spending items, worth a total of $27 million, for such expenditures as a “sports marketing grant program” and “parks revitalization” ($6.5 million each), with smaller but still substantial amounts going to “local law enforcement grants,” “medical contracts” and “community development grants.”

If that list conjures up the aroma of bacon, we suspect that you have a pretty good sense of smell. But we can’t say for sure. The governor’s complaint wasn’t that the 11 items were almost certainly pork-barrel spending. It was that, well, we don’t really know.

In veto after veto, Mr. McMaster repeated the same complaint: “This line represents a pass-thru earmark void of necessary transparency. The appropriation lacks disclosure or explanation, justification, description, purpose, location or amount. These earmarks should be publicly disclosed and debated through the normal appropriations process and allowed to stand on their own merits, not rolled up into one line thereby sheltered from scrutiny.”

He’s not exaggerating. There’s not a word in the budget to give the public – or the governor, or the agencies that are to distribute the money or even other legislators – a hint at who was intended to receive the money. And you can be sure that there are intended recipients.

In a time-honored tradition, after the budget has passed, and the governor has vetoed these sorts of items and the Legislature has overridden his vetoes, the agencies get instructions on where the money is to go.

Last year, for instance, the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism was informed that its $4.5 million “sports marketing grant” money was to be split among 24 local governments and nonprofit organizations. Among the recipients: $100,000 to an organization called Partners for Healthy Living for a walking trail in Spartanburg, $875,000 to the Oconee YMCA, $100,000 to the Columbia City Ballet, $300,000 to the town of Bluffton for a “tourism dock.”

It’s possible that those are all fine expenditures – although they strike us as items that should be funded by cities or counties or businesses or nonprofits. And legislators argue that providing relatively small amounts of money to individual legislators’ pet projects is a small but necessary price to pay to get enough votes to pass a budget.

But here’s the overriding problem: Pork-barrel spending is not all created equal. Some is more egregious, some perhaps even justifiable. But our Legislature has deliberately made it impossible for the public – and the governor and even most legislators – to judge which might be acceptable and which is not. And there is simply no way to justify that.

Legislators will return to Columbia for a special session Tuesday to consider Mr. McMaster’s vetoes. If history is any indication, they will make quick work of overriding all 11 secret expenditures. But they shouldn’t.

At the least, lawmakers should demand to see those secret lists that are going to be sent around to the agencies telling them how to spend the money. Better, they should insist that such secrecy be omitted from future budgets.

— The Post and Courier