WaPo Hit Piece Misses South Carolina Gov. Sanford

Mark Sanford doesn’t want his state to be tangled up in the strings attached to the money President Obama’s so-called “stimulus” bill is bringing to his state.  His objections are grounded in conservative principle, so it’s natural that the Washington Post is attacking him.

The problem — as Sanford explained in my interview with him last week — is that a large portion of the “stimulus” money requires increases in state payments such as unemployment benefits, and those increases have to continue even after the initial federal funding runs out.  In state terms, this “annualizes” — i.e., permanently grafts onto the state’s budget — the increased spending which many states don’t want and can’t afford.

After looking closely at the fine print, the South Carolina governor decided he would ask the White House for permission to use much of the money for the sole purpose of reducing the state’s deficit.

In a March 10 letter to the South Carolina legislature, Sanford made two very big and important points.  First, about 75% of the money the “stimulus” bill would bring to the state is beyond the governor’s legal power to redirect or reject.  That amount — about $2.8 billion — will come to the state.  

But the other 25% — about $700 million — is within the governor’s power to redirect or even apparently to reject entirely.  And, second, Sanford doesn’t want to “annualize” that $700 million into a permanent increase in state’s yearly budget.  So he proposes to ask the White House for permission to redirect that money and spend it entirely on reducing South Carolina’s state debt.

All of which is a principled conservative stance, sufficient reason for the Washington Post to publish a front-page hit piece on him.  And they did just that on March 12.

The Post article follows the liberal media hit script to the letter. First, it poses a problem:  that South Carolina’s economy is terrible (the unemployment rate there is the second-highest in the nation) and it appears that charities and state agencies are unable to meet the demands people make for “free counseling for delinquent mortgages” and “…the shelves at the Life Force pantry run out of rice, canned stew meat and black-eyed peas in less than an hour.”

As the script requires, this has to be subjected to the best post-hoc, propter-hoc analysis.  The shortage of mortgage counseling and canned stew meat — the Post implies but does not say outright — is the fact that Sanford has cut the state budget three times in as many years (about $871 million in total).  The Post does say “[t]he cuts have limited state agencies’ ability to help the growing numbers of people in need.”

Tucked in among a series of sob stories about individual South Carolinians, the Post chides Sanford for wanting to reject 25% of the stimulus money, crediting South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn with anticipating Sanford’s reaction by putting the provision into the stimulus bill that enables state legislatures to override a governor’s action to reject any stimulus money.

And, of course, the WaPo story concludes with a tear-jerker line about a generous charity worker pulling her own money out of the bank to fund a food bank.  This sort of charity isn’t tolerated by the Post: to qualify as real charity, the money has to be government money. It can’t possibly be private money that requires personal sacrifice by the donor. (That’s too Biblical a concept for liberals to grasp.)

Sanford should take heart.  His actions are principled and other conservatives believe he’s right.

Wednesday both Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) — each chairman of their respective Republican Conference — spoke about a host of issues.  I asked them for their reactions to Sanford’s position.

Alexander — a former governor of his state — jumped in immediately, expressing a governor’s frustration at the unending and enormously expensive federal mandates for state spending.  Medicaid, Alexander said, is bankrupting the states, “But the Democrats pushed through a $87 billion increase in federal funding for matching funds on Medicaid making even more difficult to reform healthcare and change the Medicaid program.”

Alexander said, “I think Mark Sanford’s exactly right to be concerned about the long term impact of this funding on South Carolina and Tennessee and other states. And if I were thinking about running for governor or serving as governor 3 years from now I’d be pretty worried about what this bill might to do the requirements that states have to fund their own programs.”

Pence agreed:  “I spoke to Governor Sanford a few weeks ago about some of his thinking, I’ve spoke to [Indiana] Governor Mitch Daniels, and I’m heartened by their desires to more effectively use the stimulus funding. We believe that the stimulus bill was nothing more than a wish list of tired old liberal spending priorities that had been lying around gathering dust in Washington, D.C. for a long time.”

I spoke to Sanford again on Thursday morning.  He made several important points.

First — contrary to the Post’s implication — was that the state budget cuts were pretty much across the board: relief agencies weren’t targeted, but were expected to absorb their a part the cuts, and they did.   

Second, Sanford isn’t going to fall into either the Washington Post’s trap or the one set by the White House.  His objection makes it clear that he’s not opposed to federal help, but only to what should be called a “relief bubble” — like the housing bubble before it — that creates untenable debts when it bursts.

He told me, “I think that the question is, to what degree is your help sustainable and that’s a really relevant question because you can go spend a bunch of money you don’t have, as we’re going to do with this stimulus bill, for a 24-month period, but guess what? Those needs within communities in South Carolina and those needs across this country are going to exist for a whole lot longer than 24 months. And what you don’t want to do is this cruel hoax of ‘I tell you what, we’re going to prop a bunch of money into the system that’s not sustainable that’ll be there for 24 months, and then what? We’re going to cut you off after 24 months and you’re on your own?’ I think that’s the cruelest of all hoaxes from the standpoint of so-called charity.”

Earlier today, Sanford sent President Obama the letter asking for a waiver from the spending obligations the $700 million would create.  

In it, Sanford wrote, “As you know, I’ve been an outspoken opponent of the stimulus legislation. I continue to believe that the massive spending involved will not achieve the economic stimulus proponents suggest and will instead create an unprecedented level of debt for our children and grandchildren.”

Saying that the waiver would prevent the accumulation of unaffordable spending, the letter continues to say, “Unless your intention is to borrow more money we don’t have to send to states like ours in 24 months, I don’t know how we would dig out of this hole without substantially raising taxes and in turn making our state economy less competitive in producing jobs.”

Sanford is pursuing a fiscally conservative approach, and the growing support for his move among Congressional conservatives is no surprise.  Neither is the Washington Post hit job on him.  

The next move is up to President Obama:  will he grant the waiver, or will he force South Carolina into penury?