Members of a state House committee think they have a compromise on the future of a South Carolina agency critical for funding conservation projects.
The state Conservation Bank helps secure financing for land to be bought or preserved, but its authorization will expire in July unless renewed. However, the agency’s reauthorization hit a snag after an audit last year noted a majority of the bank’s money was used to preserve land not open to the general public and was often committed without assurances the money would actually be there.
A bill now on the state House floor would revamp the agency by making it permanent in exchange for less funding each year. The Ways and Means Committee passed the bill last week.
“This would remove the sunset provision and basically… treat the agency the way other state agencies are,” State Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence, said.
Currently, the Conservation Bank receives its revenue through a fee collected on new deed stamps. The bill sent to the House floor last week would strip away that funding, instead requiring legislators set aside money in the budget. While that would mean less money for the bank, House budget chairman State Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, said the compromise would eliminate a current “death clause” in the bank’s charter which shuts its funding down to $0 if the legislature is ever forced to make budget cuts to other agencies.
“The tradeoff is basically, you don’t have a death clause or expire, but you act like every other state agency,” White said during last week’s committee meeting.
The Conservation Bank has protected more than 300,000 acres since its creation 14 years ago, according to its leaders. Funding this current year is roughly $13 million. White said he anticipates the money set aside to between $5-11 million if the change is made.
A February 2017 report by the Legislative Audit Council and a later Inspector General’s report found risky accounting practices at the bank, with the agency often pledging grants to projects before knowing how much it would actually receive through deed stamp fees. The audit also noted the general public could not access a majority of the land protected. Many of the grants went towards conservation easements (tax incentives for landowners) or protecting hunting clubs and other private organizations. However, the agency did meet the 10 percent minimum of publicly-accessible land required by state law.
Legislators must take some action on the bank this year as its enabling legislation will expire after June 30.