Editorial | State Conservation Bank gets backing to aid preservation

The following editorial appeared Tuesday in The (Charleston) Post and Courier:

The state Conservation Bank appears to have fully won the confidence of the S.C. House of Representatives, which voted overwhelmingly in support of a full allocation during last month's budget deliberations. Assuming Senate concurrence, the bank can expect to receive $11 million in funding next year to pursue its ongoing efforts to preserve valuable sites across the state.

And as the economy improves the bank can expect to receive even more, given continued support from the state Legislature. As property sales heat up, the Conservation Bank's allocation increases, since it receives a fraction of the revenue from documentary stamps required for land transactions.

If indeed the Legislature is sold on the good work of the Conservation Bank, then it should eliminate the “poison pill” provision that virtually terminates funding to the bank during an economic downturn.

Under that provision, the bank is automatically jeopardized if the state's revenues take a dip below the Legislature's budgeted expectations. Then funding that otherwise would be earmarked for the bank goes into the state's general fund.

And that leaves the Conservation Bank without funds to meet its financial responsibilities to landowners who have agreed to sell their property for conservation, or to have an easement placed upon it for that same purpose.

During the most recent recession, the bank almost had to shut down for lack of funding even though it is the smallest agency in state government, with only two employees. Only a last-minute rescue carried out by Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, kept the bank afloat in 2009.

That's an unreasonable situation for a state agency that provides so much benefit at no cost to the general taxpayer. Since its creation in 2002, the bank has been instrumental in preserving some 200,000 acres, largely environmentally valuable property, though including historic sites, like Morris Island. Most recently, the bank pledged $800,000 to help keep property around the Angel Oak from being developed for apartments. It also provided money for the acquisition of land at Bacon's Bridge to be included in a nature park by Dorchester County.

The bank's charter was extended five years in 2012, so there certainly will be another opportunity to review the poison pill provision in 2017.

Why wait? The House vote in support of the bank's allocation next year says that this is a good year to make the needed change.

Then the bank won't have to worry from year to year what its financial prospects will be.

You wouldn't do that with the bank on the corner -- and the Legislature shouldn't leave the Conservation Bank with such an uncertain future.