Talking Shop: Yvonne Wenger

The Post and Courier’s statehouse reporter talks about covering South Carolina

Nowhere in the country is the fight over the stimulus bill more heated than in South Carolina. Governor Mark Sanford’s opposition to the federal funds has exponentially complicated the state’s already precarious financial situation. Statehouse reporter Yvonne Wenger has been on the beat since February 2005, and has been covering the twists and turns in the stimulus saga. She recently spoke with CJR about how the recession is hitting the Palmetto state.

Katia Bachko: For people who may not know about South Carolina politics, can you give me a sense of what’s happening right now?

Yvonne Wenger: It’s so complicated. There are three lawsuits pending with regards to the stimulus money, specifically the $700 million in budget aid. Eighty-two percent of that is supposed to go to public schools and colleges and the remainder can go to a variety of investment programs. So on Monday, the governor said that he is going to accept whatever the state Supreme Court decides in two of the lawsuits. In the third case, the governor sued our attorney general and the state over what he called “a power grab” by the legislature to try to rewrite federal law and force him to take this portion of the money. His case remains in the federal court, but the governor said that he would drop it if he loses at the state level; that hearing was scheduled for Wednesday morning. The state Supreme Court justices accepted original jurisdiction on the case, so it’s the biggest thing that’s happening. [ed: The Supreme Court may decide today if the governor must step aside and allow the money to come to the state.]

As a result, some eighty-five school districts in the state have postponed adopting the final versions of their budgets, because so much is up in the air. A major problem for the districts is that because of the bad economic situation, the budget had to be cut. The districts already used up their fund balances and so now there’s really no safety net, and if they don’t get the stimulus cash then they’re going to have mass layoffs.

KB: What’s the tone of the political discourse?

YW: It’s more divisive than ever. Some of the lawmakers have stopped with the niceties, which is an interesting dynamic in South Carolina because people are very cordial and very gentleman-like. This stems back to a long feud between the governor and the legislative leaders; you could notice a different tone after the November elections. And it’s only gotten worse, you know, as the stimulus fight has dragged out.

KB: You mentioned that after the legislative session wraps up in June, you’ll start doing enterprise pieces. What will you cover?

YW: My goals are to look at the legislation that did pass and how it gets implemented by the agencies. Also, I want to look at things that didn’t pass, and why they didn’t pass. There’s a lack of legislation to address our unemployment rate, which is going between the second- and third-highest in the country, and there’s a lot of heat on the lawmakers for not doing enough to address that.

With regard to the stimulus money, I want to research how much money was actually received. South Carolina is supposed to get $2.8 billion for government services, and then it could grow to $8 billion, through tax credits and breaks and grant money. I’d like to look at weatherization. South Carolina has a whole lot of trailers and mobile homes that are poorly insulated and this money would be available for weather stripping and various forms of insulation. I’d like to see how much of that was drawn down and how many people it ended up helping.

I’ll probably continue to look at the $700 million that’s disputed—if that comes to the state, how that will be used to help public schools. The governor has been saying that he would only request the $700 million in budget aid, if the legislature would use an equal portion of state dollars to pay off debt; but the lawmakers were saying, “Well, we can’t do that because the state’s so cash-strapped that we need this money to sustain services.”

And Sanford says, “Well, you know, if you did a better job of budgeting, then we could properly fund state services while paying down more debt.” I’d like to see how much of that is true: how crucial these dollars were or weren’t for the public schools and the law enforcement agencies.

KB: Can you talk to me about the public reaction to all this?

YW: There was a really big protest that was organized primarily by the Department of Education in March. There were maybe 600 people that came to the statehouse grounds, and I think the governor held a press conference at the same time that it was going on. We could hear chanting inside his office.

But I think that for anybody who understood Sanford’s track record, the time he spent in Congress, and the positions he took on spending, that this was really consistent with his track record. I think there were some people that weren’t surprised and that were happy. It seemed like, as the debate wore on, that he was getting his message to more and more people and, therefore, his position was being received more favorably.

KB: From reading the coverage, I get the sense that this stimulus bill is an incredibly complex piece of legislation. Has it been difficult to get your head around?

YW: It was really difficult in the beginning because I depend on the legislative staff, and when they were trying to understand the stimulus the package at the same time when they were trying to write the state budget, I think everyone was feeling pretty overwhelmed and maybe a little bit confused about it.

It’s really complicated and it was really difficult to be a reporter at a time when your sources were really trying to understand what was included in the bill, how the regulations would be interpreted, and how the money would come to the state. Congressmen Clyburn, the U.S. House Majority Whip, he was a big advocate of the bill, and his office did a lot of helping us get information early on and breaking it down into the various pots of money that would be coming to South Carolina.

That was really helpful, but there are still questions at different agencies. If you call and ask the PR folks, they don’t really understand fully. As time goes by, people get a better grasp on it. One of the earliest pots of money that got dealt with was the money for highways and road resurfacing, and our Department of Transportation was set to receive $463 million over the next two years for these highway projects. They were pretty on the ball and got that started early on.

The focus for me has been on the disputed $700 million. In a lot of ways, that’s shifted the attention of all of the press corps to that little 10 percent of the money the state could ultimately get.

I don’t want to get all philosophical, but that’s why it’s important to have the watchdog element of the press. It’s important for us to look into how this happens. The White House said they wanted to be really transparent, and they asked every governor to create a taskforce in their state, a stimulus oversight group. Ours is run by the comptroller general’s office and they’re active in sending press releases about what they’ve been doing and when they’re meeting. I haven’t been to any of those meetings, but that’s maybe something I hope I can get to when things calm down.

KB: Your focus is South Carolina politics, but I’m curious if there’s something that you see missing in the national coverage?

YW: I think the most important job of any reporter is to let the reader know how something’s impacting their life, specifically. In South Carolina, the stimulus package was projected to create or save about 50,000 jobs and so I tried to write an article that said if you’re looking for a job, maybe you should follow the stimulus money and see where it takes you. If it’s supposed to be creating jobs, what jobs are being created? I had a really difficult time writing that article and researching it, maybe because I tried to do it so soon. The only obvious answer was construction because of all the highway repair money. But I think as a journalist that’s the most important thing: to help people understand how this is affecting their lives.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.