Once upon a time, there was a shiny new $550,000 ladder truck in the $5.5 billion state budget.
It was supposed to go to Powdersville to help augment Anderson Countys one ladder truck, stationed 30 minutes away.
It was supposed to help prevent a catastrophic high-rise fire, like the deadly hotel fire in Greenville last winter.
Then, one day, it disappeared.
Or, at least the words fire truck were gone from the budget. The $550,000 for the truck appears to still be there, rolled into an operating expense line in the Department of Health and Environmental Controls budget.
But Gov. Mark Sanford could not use his line-item veto to cross out the truck because, technically, he couldnt find it.
So on the second page of his 43-page veto message, he singled it out in a section called Fiscal Gimmickry.
Such political pass-throughs have no business being in the states budget, Sanford wrote. I would have vetoed the funding for it.
Sanfords staff has spent weeks searching for the truck. Legislators swore privately they would never find it, as it has long been and likely will continue to be the prerogative of the General Assembly to put grant money for local projects in the budget.
Caught in the middle the Department of Health and Environmental Control, the agency that would receive the money and pass it on to Anderson County.
DHEC is beholden to the Legislature for its budget and wants to avoid further cuts to its programs. But director Earl Hunter answers to a board with gubernatorial appointees, who decide whether he keeps his job.
We are not aware of it being in our budget anywhere, he said Wednesday.
Rep. Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, said his county needs the truck and he will try to find the money either in the budget or somewhere else.
We could wind up with another hotel fire like Greenville, Cooper said. Thats what were trying to avoid. Its got nothing to do with pork.
Cooper has considerable clout in the House, as he chairs a key Ways and Means subcommittee and was one of three House negotiators who worked out budget differences with the Senate.
Sanford said he realizes all legislators want to bring projects home to their constituents. But he wants to know that spending is being prioritized by whats important not by who has clout.
If youre going to have realistic budgeting, so many dollars for pencils, for health care, its important that those be laid out so policy-makers can make an intelligent decision, Sanford said.
Cooper said the governor has his pet projects, too, such as protecting one of his Cabinet agencies, the Department of Social Services. Sanford vetoed money from other agencies to bolster DSS, Cooper said, when he could have moved money instead from the Conservation Bank to preserve lands.
But thats his pet project, isnt it? Cooper said.
Sanford said he would be watching in case any money is spent even though there is not much he can do about it.
How will this story end?
You find out at some point, Sanford said, when a shiny new fire truck shows up.