S.C. will use millions from Volkswagen for long overdue school bus replacements

Political Bailout or Savvy Politics?

For years and years, South Carolina leaders have known that the state-owned buses taking our kids to school every single day are unsafe. And for the most part, they’ve done nothing.

Not that we should not expect that these guys will value the lives of our young ones, since schools have been neglected for even longer.

But at a press conference last Tuesday, South Carolina officials announced what they will do with the first slice of the $3 billion that Volkswagen forked over after it cheated on emissions tests. About $9.3 million will be coming our way, for now, $8 million of which will buy 78 new school buses.

There were no balloons or cheesy cardboard checks, but there could have been.

Gov. Henry McMaster stood in front of a big yellow bus and called it a “great day” for the state. (No mention, though, that McMaster vetoed $20 million for buses in 2017.) State Superintendent Molly Spearman was effusive in her appreciation that a public safety issue might be deemed worthy of South Carolina’s ill-gotten penance.

What’s one lesson for policymakers here? Go ahead, skirt your duty to the people who elected you and cross your fingers that one day you will magically come up with some money to make up for your irresponsibility.

Of course, I love the allure of a big jackpot too. Who doesn’t fantasize about what they’d do with those PowerBall millions? I could wipe out all of my credit card debt with one week of those Publishers Clearinghouse checks.

South Carolina’s lottery ticket approach to public policy, though, is an acknowledgment that we’ve ceded our duty to govern our state to a game of chance. It should be inexcusable. After years of politicians who regularly gamble our wellbeing and prosperity without ever being held accountable with competitive elections, we’ve ended up with a batch of leaders who are complicit in a scheme that has cost our state a lot more than the $3 billion Volkswagen was forced to pony up after it got caught.

Plain and simple, South Carolina’s school buses have been the oldest in the nation for more than a decade and should have been replaced long ago. If this windfall hadn’t come along in 2016, there’s no telling how long it would have taken.

Even then, S.C. Sen. Marlon Kimpson says Gov. Nikki Haley wasn’t aggressively pursuing Volkswagen’s millions when he initially floated the idea of using South Carolina’s portion pot of money to be allocated to states.

“But I gotta say, Gov. McMaster was,” the senator said last week. Kimpson is an attorney at Motley Rice, the blue chip Mt. Pleasant firm that makes it its business to recover millions in high profile lawsuits, including the Volkswagen case.

In making his case to Haley and McMaster after entering the Senate in 2013, Kimpson has at least done more than many of his colleagues to divert what money is available to fix the issue. But Volkswagen’s $8 million is just a drop in the bucket. The state still faces a “multi-million dollar hole” to fully remedy the problem, Kimpson says. Lawmakers did override that McMaster veto, and approved $19 million more in this year’s budget to fill the hole.

In total, the VW money will make up about 17 percent of what the state has devoted to pay its long-overdue school bus bills over the past few years. That may not seem like much, but without a backlog of underfunded line-items, just think about what else the state could have spent the money on.

The kicker is that the money going to buy the buses is meant to reimburse states for potential environmental damage done by Volkswagen cars that evaded emissions tests. Now, S.C. hasn’t always taken environmental issues too seriously (ironically, we don’t even require our own emissions tests), so this money could have been a chance to force leaders to at least consider a list of worthy environmental issues. Instead they’re going toward “low-emission” school buses that should have been bought a long time ago.

Next, maybe some of the latest NCAA athletics scammery or the whole college admissions fraud scandal will send a few more millions our way to fix South Carolina schools. If we’re lucky.

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