COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina's Supreme Court ordered Gov. Mark Sanford on Thursday to request $700 million in federal stimulus money aimed primarily at struggling schools, ending months of wrangling with legislators who accused him of playing politics with people's lives.
The nation's most vocal anti-bailout governor had refused to take the money designated for the state over the next two years, facing down protesters and legislators who passed a budget requiring him to. While other Republican governors had taken issue with requesting money from the $787 billion federal stimulus package, Sanford was the first to defend in court his desire to reject the money.
But he said Thursday he will not appeal the Supreme Court ruling and plans to sign paperwork to request the money Monday.
Educators quickly hailed the court decision. They had predicted hundreds of teachers would lose jobs and colleges would see steep tuition increases without the money, though sharp budget cuts will still take a toll.
"Finally. It took way too long. It was so unnecessary and took so long to do what 49 other states figured out how to do a long time ago, but finally is better than not at all. It will allow districts to immediately begin to reconstitute programs and fill positions they didn't think they could fill," state Education Superintendent Jim Rex said.
While Sanford raised the issue, it was Casey Edwards, a Chapin High School student graduating Friday, who brought it to the state's highest court. She beamed as she told reporters she "was very excited that our schools and our teachers and our education system will be getting the funds that are so desperately needed here in South Carolina."
The stimulus fight has raised the national profile of Sanford, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and provoked talk of a 2012 GOP presidential bid. But at home, the episode became a power struggle between Sanford and the Republican-dominated Legislature.
The former congressman objected to the stimulus money on several levels that were consistent with his small government, anti-spending stances. He claims it will devalue the dollar and increase debt. When legislators pushed for the cash, Sanford said they were overstepping their reach into his executive powers.
The unanimous court ruling said the governor had no say in the matter.
"At this stage in the process, the Governor certainly has no discretion to make a contradictory decision on behalf of the State," the ruling said. "He has no discretion concerning the appropriation of funds."
Sanford on Thursday lamented what he said was a decision that underscores how the little power governors of the state have is ceded to the Legislature.
"In South Carolina, in many ways, we don't have three branches of government. We have only one," he said. "If you put too much power in one place, not many good things happen."
The Supreme Court's ruling came a day after arguments in two lawsuits filed by students and school administrators. Sanford had tried to get those cases merged in federal court with his lawsuit against the state, which he filed moments after legislators overrode his budget veto. But he lost that battle Monday when a federal judge refused to take those cases.
Sanford had refused to request the $700 million _ the portion of the $2.8 billion bound for the state that he says he controls _ unless legislators agreed to offset state debt by an equal amount. The White House twice rejected that idea, noting the money must be used to help education and avoid job losses.
South Carolina, which had the nation's third-highest jobless rate in April _ hitting a state record high of 11.5 percent _ cut more than $1 billion from its $7 billion spending plan for 2008-09 as tax revenues slumped in the recession.
Sanford's refusal has raised the ire of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, who accused the governor of being a foe of public education. Amid budget cuts and uncertainty over the federal money, districts had told hundreds of teachers they don't have a job in the upcoming school year.
State education officials estimated schools would eliminate 2,600 education jobs, including 1,500 teachers, without the stimulus money.
Clyburn, D-S.C., inserted an amendment in the federal law with Sanford's anti-bailout stance in mind, saying legislators could go around a governor's refusal. While the legality of that was questioned, U.S. District Judge Joseph Anderson on Monday cited it in saying it was clear Congress intended to allow legislators to get around governors who didn't want the money.