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S.C. Colleges Continue to Resist Transparency

Last year, S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom’s office reviewed the use of all state-issued credit cards in 2008 and discovered a few eyebrow-raising purchases – including liquor and Victoria’s Secret clothing.

Better make inquires about those expenditures, Eckstrom thought.

So he did. But what Eckstrom found turned out be on the up and up.

The questionable transactions – all by public colleges and universities, and all legitimate – were for libations at faculty or alumni club meetings, and costumes for plays performed by drama students, Eckstrom says.

He says he undertook the review in response to an inquiry from Spartanburg-based television station WSPA. The station raised the issue because an audit of state credit card use in Georgia had uncovered some improprieties, Eckstrom says.

While that was not the case in South Carolina, for Eckstrom, the examination of state credit card use highlighted a big missing piece in an online government spending transparency project he launched more than two years ago.

The goal of Eckstrom’s project: Make every single dime of public spending in South Carolina – federal, state and local – available for review by the public in a centralized, easy-to-digest format on the Internet.

A Republican whose job title is CG for short, the comptroller general is the state’s bookkeeper, and all spending by S.C. agencies goes through his office.

When it comes to public colleges and universities, however, there’s a problem: The accounting systems they employ cannot interface with a statewide program that Eckstrom’s office uses.

In addition, the schools haven’t exactly been receptive to the idea, he says.

They have operated independently as the day is long, developing a "fortress mentality" behind walls of separation from the larger workings of state government, Eckstrom says. "There’s still a lot of pushback, understandably," he says of "higher eds" and his transparency project. "They’ve always had those walls surrounding them."

S.C. Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, is familiar with the reporting gap obscuring spending by public colleges and universities and he is sponsoring legislation to address it.

Rose’s bill would require the schools to "maintain a transaction register that includes a complete record of all funds expended over one hundred dollars, from whatever source for whatever purpose."

Also under the legislation, state-funded institutions would have to prominently post their registers on their websites and make them available for public viewing and downloading.

Rose says there are many issues with how public colleges and universities are spending money, especially as they have been raising tuition at "unacceptably high" rates and engaging in "mission creep" through public-private partnerships in economic development and other areas.

"And I just think the best disinfectant is sunlight," Rose says. "And this is particularly needed in this era of revenue shortfalls."

Good Idea, Little Hope

Be that as it may, though, Rose’s bill stands little chance of passing this year, and he acknowledges as much. "I know that this bill is not going to pass" this legislative session, the senator says.

For one thing, the crossover deadline – when a bill typically must move from one chamber of the General Assembly to the other in order to clear the Legislature this year – is the end of this week.

And standing in the way of that happening with Rose’s bill are four senators with concerns about it who have put their names on the measure, placing it on the Senate’s contested calendar.

Those senators are Republican Hugh Leatherman of Florence, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Democrats Joel Lourie of Richland, Gerald Malloy of Darlington and Kent Williams of Marion.

Will Rose call for the Senate to vote to put his bill on special order, thereby removing it from the contested calendar so the chamber can take it up?

No, he says, explaining that the Senate has more pressing business to attend to in these final weeks of the session before it ends in early June. "More roll-call voting – that is more important," Rose says as an example.

In lieu of a special-order vote, on Tuesday he proposed his bill as a proviso in the Senate’s 2010-11 budget, which the chamber is debating this week, to "hopefully get an up-or-down vote on it."

The new fiscal year begins July 1.

But responding to an objection by Leatherman, Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, ruled Rose’s proviso out of order and the Senate did not vote on it.

Looking ahead to next year’s legislative session, Rose says he will reintroduce his bill.

Asked to comment on it, and what if anything the University of South Carolina is doing to provide details about its spending online, USC spokeswoman Margaret Lamb said in an e-mail "we’ll certainly comply … if the legislation passes."

On two separate occasions over the course of a few months, The Nerve also contacted Clemson University to ask about its lack of participation in Eckstrom’s online spending transparency project.

Clemson did not respond to either of The Nerve’s inquiries.

Eckstrom says he hopes that Rose’s bill will pass at some point.

In the meantime, the CG has employed his command of state finances to begin to chip away at the dearth of spending reporting by higher eds.

In an announcement he plans to make today in a news conference, Eckstrom says he is adding all transactions with state-issued credit cards – by agency and by cardholder – to his online transparency portal.

The state has a contract with Bank of America for its credit cards, and the bank has agreed to provide the CG’s office with a data file each month that lists the transactions, Eckstrom says.

Some higher eds control hundreds of state credit cards, he says.

Whether the schools get on board with spending transparency is about their priorities, Eckstrom says. "It’s just a reflection of willingness to advance what I think is a good-government issue," he says. "But secondly, I think that confidence in government has never been lower."

And in that regard, Eckstrom says, spending transparency could help build public confidence that government is spending tax money wisely.

Or, at the very least, it could show that a Victoria’s Secret purchase was indeed justified.

Reach Ward at (803) 779-5022, ext. 117, or eric@scpolicycouncil.com.

Budget General Assembly Higher Education Legislation State Agencies Transparency