Sanford Fights Bailout for States

By: - December 1, 2008 12:00 am

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s single-minded obsession with cutting government spending is well-known to people in his own state.

The Republican governor famously brought pigs to the state capitol to protest pork spending. He drove up to the statehouse in a horse and buggy to object to what he saw as “outmoded” state government. During his six years in Congress, he slept in his Capitol Hill office rather than take a taxpayer-funded allowance for housing.

Now, the former real-estate investor who has made a political career of being the odd man out is picking an even bigger fight. He’s leading the charge – often a lonely one – against a series of massive federal financial bailouts, including plans pushed by governors and state legislators to revive the nation’s sagging economy with a major new public works program.

Billions of dollars to rebuild the nation’s road and bridges is a key component of President-elect Barack Obama’s plan, which he says will generate 2.5 million jobs.

Most governors love the outlines of Obama’s proposed stimulus package, saying aid to states can help soften the impact of a recession.

Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) of California talked up infrastructure spending on national TV. The Democratic governors of New York and New Jersey came to the Hill to push for a public works package. The National Governors Association wrote Congress expressing its support for state spending in a stimulus package, and its leaders are joining forces with the National Conference of State Legislatures to promote the idea in Washington, D.C., Monday (Dec. 1).

Not Sanford. In his campaign against the public works concept, he’s written an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, tried to whip up opposition in his home state and came to Washington, D.C., to tell Congress not to approve a stimulus plan that relies on deficit spending by the federal government.

“I am here to respectfully beg this committee not to approve a billion stimulus package,” Sanford told members of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee in October, referring to a package then rumored to be under consideration.

Obama’s plan, which still is taking shape, calls for massive new spending for infrastructure and renewable energy projects and is expected to include other aid to states. Obama declined to say how much his stimulus plan would cost, but estimates are running as high as billion.

But the source of the funds – borrowed money – bothers Sanford.

“I’ve got nothing against infrastructure. I love infrastructure. It’s important. … But you’ve got to distinguish between funding infrastructure and borrowing to fund infrastructure,” he told in a recent telephone interview.

Not only would the federal intervention not be big enough to re-start the economy, Sanford said, it would give the federal government far too much power. He also worries that there won’t be enough oversight of a hastily approved package. “It’d be a wish list, a Santa-Claus-comes-early list for a lot of municipal leaders or state leaders,” he said.

“There’s just something mathematically and morally wrong with having folks from across the country go out and bail out states that, in many cases, spent at a faster rate than the federal government,” he said.

Likewise, Sanford told U.S. House members they should cut federal spending elsewhere if they wanted to expand Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor paid for by both state and federal governments.

As unpopular as his stand is, Sanford, recently elected chairman of the Republican Governors Association, knows a thing or two about taking on overwhelming odds. At home, lawmakers in the Republican-held South Carolina General Assembly routinely override Sanford’s prolific vetoes, even though it requires a two-thirds majority.

But Sanford said he fights with the legislature to make a bigger point, not because he doesn’t know how to negotiate with lawmakers.

“It’s not hard, the legislative process,” he said. “Our four boys, the youngest of whom is 9, could figure it out, because they know how to trade marbles. It’s really easy stuff. I give you this marble for that one. … But that isn’t what we’re after.”

Sanford said he’s trying to convince the public that the American economy is in danger from excessive government spending, which could weaken the dollar and hurt Americans as they compete against foreign businesses.

“In a political sense, people will only jump off a burning platform. People are amazingly resistant to changing. And unless they think it is absolutely necessary, they don’t,” he said.

He’s been ringing the same alarm bells since his election to Congress in 1994. Cutting government spending, Sanford said, is his “be-all, end-all” reason for getting into politics.

So it’s no surprise Sanford has railed against the billion Wall Street bailout bill as well as proposals to aid ailing American automakers in recent months.

The 48-year-old once worked for the investment firm Goldman Sachs in New York City, where he met his wife, Jenny, another financial specialist. Sanford then became a real-estate investor in Charleston, S.C., hoping to emulate Sam Zell, a Chicago real-estate magnate who also owns the Tribune newspaper chain and the Chicago Cubs.

But his career took a dramatic turn after he heard James Dale Davidson, founder of the National Taxpayers Union, give what Sanford recalls as an “apocalyptic” speech about excessive government spending. Sanford decided to run for Congress, pledging to end the deficit, eschew pay hikes and serve only three terms.

Even though he was part of the “Republican Revolution” that gave the GOP control of the U.S. House and Senate in 1994, Sanford often found himself on the short end of lopsided votes on spending. He even voted against earmarks popular in his district.

Sanford left Congress after three terms in 2001 and in 2002 won his first term as governor, the first in 50 years not to come from state government. In a state where the legislature has more power over budgeting and agencies than in most, the term-limited Sanford has spent most of his two terms butting heads with fellow Republicans who control the House and Senate.

Many of those disagreements started with Sanford vetoes. Last year lawmakers overturned 228 of Sanford’s 243 budget vetoes, overriding all but .8 million of the million in cuts the governor sought. This year, the General Assembly overturned 15 of the 20 bills Sanford vetoed.

“The legislature – Democrats and Republicans – nothing brings them together more than the governor vetoing the budget and (legislators) trying to override,” said Clemson University professor Bruce Ransom.

The feuding goes beyond his famed publicity stunts. Sanford regularly issues columns for local newspapers attacking legislators. Recently his wife, Jenny, joined the act with a piece about how she cut spending at the executive mansion , while lawmakers let state government as a whole grow. The governor supported his own candidates for the state House and Senate, with limited success.

“He’s embarrassed members of the General Assembly. It’s almost open war between him and a good number of the General Assembly from his own party, including the party leadership in both the House and Senate,” said Bill Moore, a College of Charleston political science professor.

David Woodward, a Republican campaign consultant and a Clemson University professor, said Sanford’s stubbornness is what makes him popular with voters but unpopular with lawmakers.

“He’s loved for what he does, and he can’t get anything done,” Woodward said. “There’s a sense that he’s standing up for us. But, of course, that completely inhibits his ability to work with another branch of government.”

Still, with Republicans around the country reeling from November’s electoral defeats, party leaders point to Sanford and his fellow GOP governors – such as Sarah Palin of Alaska, Charlie Crist of Florida, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota – as leaders in rebuilding the party. Sanford said he hopes his hard-line stance on spending will gain favor in the GOP ranks. During tough economic times, voters are more likely to get outraged about wasteful spending, he said.

“I think it’s an incredible opportunity for conservatism to come back into the middle of the Republican brand. We tried this ‘compassionate conservatism,’ which was another way of saying ‘Be all things to all people,'” Sanford said, referring to President George W. Bush’s 2000 election promise. “It didn’t work so well.”

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