South Carolina's Democratic chief executive, Jim Hodges, is carefully monitoring the federal tobacco payments his state is to receive over the next quarter-century. The Palmetto State has already gotten $165 million, but waning tobacco sales may shrink the $2.3 billion total South Carolina is due.
During a recent swing through Washington, D.C., Hodges spoke with Stateline.org's Blair S. Walker about the tobacco-payment issue and about the Confederate flag controversy gripping his state.
Stateline.org: South Carolina's estimated early take of its tobacco settlement money has been reduced three times in the last few months because tobacco sales are down. Does that worry you?
Hodges: We are being very prudent in budgeting it -- I do not expect any significant reductions in further money coming to us. We all are concerned about the dip between what we thought we would have and the amount that we do have. But the big issue for us is to be prudent in how we do budget that money and not to overpromise and overcommit.
Stateline.org: Some states are looking into bonding their tobacco money, while Louisiana is weighing the outright sale of its settlement. Have you investigated any of those options?
Hodges: Yes, in fact we have a group that is taking a look at the bonding issue, to try to decide whether or not we want to secure some portion. Bonding is an option we're looking at. Frankly, this year what we've chosen to do is to spend the money in this year's budget and make allocations. My proposal was to allocate 60 percent for health care, 20 percent for tobacco-community revitalization and 20 percent for farmers. And we plan to structure it in the future -- whether it's through a security or otherwise -- along that same formula.
Stateline.org: I've read that all of South Carolina's tobacco-settlement money appears to have been earmarked for health concerns.
Hodges: The House of Representatives just passed their budget in Ways and Means the other day, and they passed a different plan. But my plan is that 60 percent be devoted to health care, 20 percent to tobacco farmers and 20 percent to economic development in underdeveloped communities around the state, many of which are tobacco communities.
Stateline.org: If South Carolina's House continues on its current path, regarding plans for the state's tobacco money, will you look to override it?
Hodges: I certainly hope that they make some serious adjustments on the floor of the House or in the Senate, because I do not think that is a plan that's very good. There's too much pork barrel spending in it. And we need to devote the lion's share of that money to health care, particularly anti-smoking initiatives.
Stateline.org: What's your take on the Confederate flag controversy your state is embroiled in?
Hodges: Well, it's a tough problem. I think we have made some progress over the course of the last month. I laid a plan out several weeks ago that enjoyed the support of a substantial number of members of the African-American Caucus, along with Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, and a large number of business and political leaders in South Carolina. I think it's a good plan, it meets the concerns that were raised in the original resolutions by a number of groups, including the NAACP. But it also continues to place the flag in a historically appropriate place on our (Capitol) grounds. I think we have made some progress with that. I do not expect that this is an issue that can be resolved in a week or two -- it will probably take most of this session. But we are making progress.
Stateline.org: Your plan would remove the flag from atop the statehouse dome, right?
Hodges: Yes, it takes it from the dome, it sure does.