It’s not an image you see every day: a governor carrying two pigs – one under each arm – to the doors of a legislative chamber. Just a day before, the South Carolina House of Representatives took up Governor Sanford’s 106 budget vetoes and overrode all but one in less than a hundred minutes. Though it seemed like the pigs were solely a response to the veto votes, they were actually the final volley in a battle that began nearly a year earlier. The objective of the battle: establish the governor’s credibility in shaping the state’s budget and inject Sanford’s views on fiscal restraint.
In the end, it got messy – quite literally – as the remnants of that press conference needed to be scrubbed out of the carpet. The memory of Sanford and those pigs lasted longer than the stains. In the end, it also helped him influence the debate for years to come.
An Unconstitutional Deficit
At the beginning of Governor Sanford’s first term, he learned the state had closed the 2001-2002 Fiscal Year with a $155 million deficit, violating the state constitution’s balanced budget requirement. In the summer of 2003, he raised this issue publicly with the chairmen of the legislature’s budget writing committees, Representative Bobby Harrell and Senator Hugh Leatherman.
The deficit was a problem that had caught the attention of the credit rating agencies, who were considering downgrading the state’s AAA bond rating. That pressure brought together the governor and the legislative leaders to reach a rare accord to enact the “Fiscal Discipline Act,” paying off the deficit in three years.
Sanford also pledged to hold a series of public budget hearings to dig deep into state government spending in advance of his first Executive Budget in January 2004. The importance of this first budget was one of the reasons Sanford asked me to relocate from Washington to be Senior Policy Advisor in the Governor’s Office in Columbia.
The First Executive Budget
As I discussed in Road to Nowhere, South Carolina is known as a “legislative state.” The governor’s role is limited except for the megaphone. When Governor Carroll Campbell took office in 1987, he sent a budget to the General Assembly even though there was no official role for the governor in the budgeting process. He repeated this annually and finally, in his last year in office, the law was changed requiring the governor to submit an annual budget. His successors submitted what amounted to a wish list without details over the next eight years, and we wanted to change that.
Through the late summer and fall of 2003, we held budget hearings, made charts and graphs, and produced a 315-page budget that we submitted to the General Assembly in January 2004. We proposed to pay off the debt in one year, but budget cuts were required to help make that happen. Though the cuts were not popular, the level of detail was. Even our critics conceded that we had taken the mission of budget writing seriously and earned a seat at the table.
We weighed in regularly throughout the process, creating as much pressure as possible to eliminate the deficit. The budget included funds for “increased enforcement,” which gave the South Carolina Department of Revenue added resources to go after uncollected taxes. It also included land sales of unused state property. Even though those projected funds were not guaranteed, they amounted to all but $16 million of the deficit paid off in one year. Being that close, we wanted to finish the job.
Just Give Us Options
We met with legislative leaders to see where we could find the rest of the money. Then-Speaker David Wilkins told the Governor, “Just give us some options and we can make it happen.” Wilkins had no idea he’d opened the door to an avalanche of vetoes.
Over the next five days, we scoured the budget and put together a list of 106 separate vetoes. Not all of the vetoes were aimed at reducing spending; some eliminated “provisos,” which were legislatively-directed policy inserted into the budget. We submitted the vetoes just before midnight on the last possible day, confident we would achieve victory.
Goring Every Ox
When we met with legislative leaders on the budget vetoes, we laid out the arguments and conveyed we understood that not every veto would stand, but we “gave them options.” The reality was that we had gored every ox possible, building a coalition of vote trading that ensured defeat. By the time the House convened to take up the vetoes, they wanted to get the votes over.
The vote was called and taken, one after another. During the process, one member was blowing a train whistle to get members to vote faster. Just one member, former Representative Herb Kirsh, voted to sustain every veto. In fact, at one point, he was the sole no vote and the members chanted “Herb! Herb! Herb!” to get him to change his vote. In the end, he refused, and the Speaker announced the vote as “104 to Herb, the veto is overridden.”
In the moment, we were surprised. After it was over, we realized that we had not considered the breadth of the vetoes and that members would trade votes to save a particular line they supported. Our press secretary had gone on record expressing anger, and Sanford’s response was, “We don’t show emotion. We don’t take it personally.” He publicly walked back those comments, but we couldn’t settle for a 99-minute drubbing in the House.
Eating the Governor’s Lunch
Coincidentally timed with the vetoes, we had scheduled an end-of-the-year reception for legislators at the Governor’s Mansion. It turned out to be a three-hour roast. One member of the House said during the event, “It doesn’t seem right that the governor’s feeding us dinner after we ate his lunch.” It was all smiles during the dinner, but when everyone left, Sanford pulled me aside to talk about the day and the response. He wanted to know what I thought we should do, and all I could come up with was, “Punch’em back.” After all that effort to be credible, we couldn’t let it all fall apart now. Sanford said, “Alright, let’s think about it and talk. Deal?” I agreed, and we parted ways.
We Need Pigs
After our morning staff meeting, the governor and I met to talk response. I didn’t really have anything that didn’t seem either too weak or too strong.
He, on the other hand, said, “Remember those press conferences that Citizens Against Government Waste did on the Hill?”
“Pig Book. We used to have pigs eat money out of troughs. It was great,” I replied.
“That’s what I want to do. We need to get some pigs and have a press conference outside the House chamber.”
I wish I could say I hesitated or even tried to talk him out of it, but it seemed perfect. We needed to keep it quiet – and we needed pigs. We asked Daniel Layfield, a staffer in our press office, to find us some. He called every farm within driving distance and asked to borrow a couple of pigs. He didn’t get a lot of interest until he found a farmer in Lexington County who wanted to know why we needed them. Daniel answered honestly, “The Governor wants to stand outside the House and talk about pork-barrel spending.” The farmer loved the idea so much he told him we could have them for as long as we needed them. Off to get two pigs.
Run Like Hell
As everything was coming together, we needed to bring the rest of the staff in on what was happening. Our Senate liaison, Carl Blackstone, and Deputy Chief of Staff Chad Walldorf were completely unfazed when we locked them in a room to share the details. It says a little something about our brand that they didn’t even push back.
We needed to bring in Tom Davis, our Legislative Director and liaison to the House. Tom would go on to be Chief of Staff before me and then leave to serve in the South Carolina Senate. Tom had a rough session already and it was not looking up. He already knew we were about to drop something big on him, since the Governor and a group of staff were waiting for him in a closed-door meeting.
“Just tell me,” he said.
“Tom, the Governor is going to do a press conference in front of the House with two pigs,” I responded.
He paused and looked around the room waiting for us to let him in on the joke.
“He’s not kidding, Tom. The pigs are on the way,” Daniel helpfully added.
Tom sat down and put a hand to his head.
“You have to go back up there and pretend like nothing’s happening.” I said.
“So how am I going to know when it happens?”
“Oh, you’ll know.” I said, “And when it does, run like hell.”
That was the last I saw of Tom for hours.
The Governor’s Got Pigs!
The pigs arrived and were carried in two crates commonly used for dogs. One was an all white Yorkshire and the other a red Duroc, each weighing about 30 pounds. They had been named “Pork” and “Barrel” to highlight the budget spending and the choice to override the vetoes instead of the deficit. Sanford pulled the pigs out of the carriers and headed for the stairs leading to the House. We went up the opposite steps to basically push the crowd toward the press conference.
“The Governor’s got pigs!” we told anyone who would listen, pointing to the House chamber door.
As Sanford got to the top of the steps, one of the pigs pooped on his coat, his shoes, and the carpet. We’d watch the video of that moment in slow motion many times over during the coming months.
The governor held a 10-minute press conference, announcing he was just having a little fun at the expense of the House since they’d done the same at his expense the day before. He talked about the constitution and the need to live within our means. He encouraged the Senate to take a more deliberate approach to the vetoes and said he hoped we could pay off the whole deficit. He picked the pigs back up, off he went back to the office, and we sent Pork and Barrel back to the farm.
The House Majority Whip, Representative Annette Young stood at the door and yelled, “Somebody better clean up this mess and it better be one of y’all!” pointing at the governor’s staff.
By the time the lobby had cleared, you could definitely tell the pigs had been there. The task of cleaning up fell to Press Secretary Will Folks and Speechwriter Joel Sawyer, who had to round up cleaning supplies and scrub the carpet. The smell lingered for the rest of the day, but they seemed to have gotten the stains out.
The move wasn’t very popular with the General Assembly, and the senators had their own fun while taking up the vetoes. They sustained 12 more, but we fell short of getting the $16 million. The voting public’s response, however, was overwhelmingly positive. The House Majority Leader told me that his poll numbers flipped over the weekend, and two weeks later he would lose his primary to an unknown challenger.
In the rearview, we’d fought to a draw, but given that the odds were stacked against the South Carolina governor, I considered it a win. We had established credibility on the budget, and we’d earned respect in the budgeting process. This tension would repeat itself pretty regularly over Sanford’s time in office, and spending was the single most contentious issue between him and the legislature.
A few months later, at the close of the budget process in June, the Comptroller General announced we’d had an unexpected surplus and enough money to eliminate the deficit completely. So in the end, it all worked out.
No pigs were harmed in the telling of this story.