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South Carolina Could Spend Millions to Boost Broadband Access

South Carolina’s COVID-19 task force is proposing that state and federal funding be allocated toward a broadband plan. It proposes $80 million to go toward infrastructure improvements and $20 million for mobile hot spots.

(TNS) — The state could spend $100 million on broadband and another nearly $16.7 million to increase the state’s stockpile of personal protective equipment, if lawmakers agree to approve recommendations from members of Gov. Henry McMaster’s COVID-19 task force.

In addition, a subgroup of McMaster’s Accelerate South Carolina task force recommended Tuesday that the state invest in more medical testing, increase contact tracing to identify South Carolinians who may have contracted the respiratory disease and funnel $500 million into the state’s unemployment trust fund.

South Carolina has received more than $2.7 billion from the federal government to help offset millions of dollars in spending related to fighting and recovering from the coronavirus. And, already, more than $196 million has been spent by colleges and universities, state agencies, the state’s technical college system, counties and cities to deal with the COVID-19 response.

That figure, the group heard Tuesday, is expected to rise to more than $613 million through Dec. 30.

But of the more than $2.7 billion, a large chunk of those dollars — $1.9 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act— has been the source of a power struggle between the governor and the S.C. Legislature.

The state’s federal share of COVID-19 relief was given to governors to spend at their discretion.

South Carolina lawmakers disagreed, adding into legislation to keep state government operating a measure that puts the $1.9 billion share into a separate account and treat it similarly to a budget bill allowing the General Assembly to have final say.

McMaster signed what is called a continuing resolution on Monday, urging lawmakers to act quickly on the spending.

“These relief funds belong to the people of South Carolina, not politicians, and we must deliver them to where they are needed,” McMaster wrote in his signing letter to S.C. House and Senate leaders. “Consideration for their appropriation must be done expeditiously — but also wisely, transparently and with meticulous accountability.”

Specific to the $1.9 billion in aid, the Accelerate South Carolina group proposed spending $250,000 for a state broadband plan, $80 million for broadband infrastructure improvements and $20 million to buy mobile hot spots for 100,000 homes.

“It was ... believed by the group, a majority of the group, that if we were serious about broadband then we should seriously put some money on the line about broadband,” said former state Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, who chaired the subgroup responsible for proposing how to spend the federal dollars.

The group also recommended spending $16.7 million for a state stockpile of protective equipment; nearly $13.4 million for summer reading and math camps; $160 million for five additional days of kindergarten through eighth grade lessons and social and emotional support; and $250 million to reimburse public and private hospitals.

The money is supposed to help state agencies and local governments recoup costs incurred because of COVID-19, and some of the recommendations proposed on Tuesday are duplications of proposals, for example, $19.9 million for statewide testing.

State lawmakers already set aside $25 million for the Medical University of South Carolina to help with that.

The need for local governments is great, Greenville Mayor Knox White told the group on Tuesday.

“But the COVID expenses are really adding up,” White said. “They’re becoming serious.”

The subgroup recommended Tuesday that the state should hire an outside, third-party group to monitor and provide the governor monthly reports of how the state’s share is being spent.

McMaster’s signing of the legislation on Monday also gives the state’s Department of Administration $1.5 million in state surplus dollars to oversee and ensure agencies and others are complying with the CARES Act federal aid guidelines.

As part of its recommendations, the Accelerate South Carolina resource group said the federal dollars should only be used for eligible costs, and dollars should not be moved from one area to another without approval. Any of the state’s federal share that is not spent on Dec. 29 should be sent to the state’s unemployment trust fund, the group recommended.

“Somehow this money needs to get back to the entities that have spent the money,” Ryberg said on Tuesday. “That’s the agencies, municipal governments, the county governments. So, it needs to be getting back to them in a very timely fashion. ... Some of them don’t have the luxury of deep pockets, like some other agencies might have.”

The governor will make the ultimate decision over the recommendations and whether to tweak them before sending them to the General Assembly for approval.

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said Tuesday he expects the Legislature to return to Columbia the second or third week of June to take up the $1.9 billion spending bill.

Asked if that’s how he expects the process to run, McMaster said, “that is my expectation, too.”

Accelerate SC proposals for $1.9B spending

  • $250,000: broadband state plan
  • $80 million: broadband infrastructure
  • $20 million: statewide hot spots
  • $16.7 million: personal protective equipment state stockpile
  • $7.5 million: nursing home testing
  • $15 million: statewide contact tracing
  • $19.9 million: statewide testing
  • $500 million: unemployment trust fund
  • $250 million: public and private hospital reimbursements
  • $13.4 million: summer reading/math intervention K-3 camp
  • $160 million: five days of K-8 academic instruction and intervention for social/emotional support
  • $12 million: reimbursement for meals handed out to students and cafeteria workers’ salaries
©2020 The State (Columbia, S.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.