School Districts Join the Fray Over|South Carolina Stimulus Money

     COLUMBIA, S.C. (CN) – School administrators from across South Carolina have asked the Federal Court to throw out Gov. Mark Sanford’s lawsuit in which Sanford tries to reject $700 million in federal stimulus funds, despite the objections of the Legislature. If the governor were to prevail, the plaintiffs say, school districts across the state would be forced to make deep budget cuts which would hurt students.

     The South Carolina Association of School Administrators on Tuesday asked to join the Sanford case, then argued that the lawsuit should be dropped and the issues it raises handled instead by the state Supreme Court.
     State legislators effectively ordered Sanford to request the money – a portion of the total $2.8 billion the state is eligible for under the Obama Administration’s economic stimulus package – by including the funds in its budget for the state’s next fiscal year.
     Sanford responded by filing a federal lawsuit last week to assert his control over the money, contending that the Legislature overstepped the bounds of the state and the federal constitutions.
     “If the governor can’t make decisions independent of the Legislature, why have a governor?” Sanford asked during a press conference in the Capitol last week.
     Sanford took an equally pugnacious stance on Tuesday, directing attorney John Witherspoon Foster of the firm Kilpatrick Stockton to seek the removal of a suit the school administrators filed in the state Supreme Court to the Federal Court in Columbia.
     In a written statement issued Tuesday, Sanford said, “Our suit is fundamentally about the balance of power and separation of powers in our state, and whether or not the Legislature is going to be allowed to erode the Executive Branch even further in South Carolina.
     “Legislative dominance costs our state’s citizens far too much for the way it breeds waste and duplication. The last thing we need to be doing is exporting that dysfunctional system to other states, which is what will happen if our General Assembly is allowed to rewrite federal law in this way.”
     Two other lawsuits related to the stimulus money, both filed by high students, are also before the state Supreme Court. In his statement, Sanford initially said he would not file a response to those suits as he’s not named as a defendant and therefore is “not bound” by their outcome. In both cases, the state is named as the defendant.
     But the governor changed his tune on Tuesday afternoon, saying he would try to intervene in the state court case filed on behalf of a South Carolina High School senior. The student is represented by Dwight Drake with Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarborough, and attorney Richard Harpootlian.
     “This issue is about the fundamental balance of power between the executive and the legislative branches of South Carolina government,” Sanford said. “We hope for all concerned it is decided quickly.”
     A response to the state lawsuits by Attorney General Henry McMaster and Education Superintendent Jim Rex is anticipated to be imminent.
     Speaking with reporters in Columbia on Tuesday, McMaster said he had grave concerns about the outcome of the various cases, fearing “they may weaken the office of the governor to the port of potential irrelevancy.”
     McMaster said the situation unfolding in courtrooms around Columbia is unique, and that there’s little in the way of court precedent on which to base rulings on the matter.
     Foster’s filings on the behalf of the governor argue that the school administrators’ lawsuit should be handled in Federal Court because the Legislature effectively – and unconstitutionally – pre-empted federal law by including the disputed funds in the budget and forcing the governor’s hand when it came to the $700 million in question.
     Attorney John Reagle, with Childs and Halligan in Columbia, is representing the South Carolina Association of School administrators.
     A hearing on the jurisdictional issue has been set for June 1 at 10 a.m. in the Matthew J. Perry Courthouse in Columbia. U.S. District Judge Joseph Anderson Jr. is presiding.

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