The South Carolina General Assembly last week overrode Governor Nikki Haley’s veto of a bill that sets aside funds for new firefighting equipment.
In her veto message, Haley said she was not opposed to buying new equipment– she requested $3.5 million in her executive budget– but called the bill an unnecessary earmark. Legislators overrode her by a 108-2 vote in the House and a 42-1 vote in the Senate.
The new law would take 2.25 percent of the revenue from insurance premium taxes and specifically set it aside for firefighting equipment. The state Forestry Commission has been struggling with its replacement cycle as the recession forced budget cuts.
Agency officials say the need for new equipment was all too apparent in 2009, when one of the worst wildfires in state history struck Horry County. Roughly 40 percent of the Forestry Commission’s entire fleet is over 15 years old– the recommended life cycle. 1996 was the last time South Carolina floated a bond to pay for new vehicles.
Democrats pounced on the governor’s veto. They pointed out Haley herself appeared at a June 6 press conference in which officials touted the bill. Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg) even jokingly called the governor the “Queen of Preen” for her actions.
However, Sen. Shane Massey came to Haley’s defense, saying the governor did not oppose new firefighting equipment– she only took issue with how it was funded.
“To suggest that she’s been hypocritical is nuts,” he said Wednesday.
But lawmakers overwhelmingly aligned against the governor, supporting the new funding source in a bipartisan vote. Sen. Creighton Coleman (D-Winnsboro) said it was imperative that the Forestry Commission replace its aging equipment. Seven bulldozers failed while fighting a large fire last July.
“Ask yourself, do you want to be fighting a fire with a 15-year-old bulldozer that is going to break down?” he asked from the Senate well, “I don’t think so.”
Rep. Ted Vick (D-Chesterfield) sponsored the original bill and also appeared with the governor at the June 6 event. “(I)t puts the money in every year so that all your tractors don’t get old at one time and don’t have to be replaced at one time,” he said at the press conference, “It’s a more responsible way of funding.”
Most of the Forestry Commission’s bulldozers are open-cab, exposing the firefighters operating them to smoke and heat. Newer versions have air conditioned, closed cabs. Haley’s budget request had already set aside enough funds to put two newer vehicles in each region of the state, according to State Forester Gene Kodama. However, he supported the new law as a way to put safer equipment in the field as quickly as possible.
The special account will expire after five years.