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Thinking Outside the Box

If you ask state Sens. Mike Rose and Tom Davis, they’ll gladly tell you how the Senate could have avoided increasing its operating budget for this fiscal year by nearly $4 million.

In fact, Rose, R-Dorchester, and Davis, R-Beaufort, felt strongly enough about the 46-percent hike that they issued a joint written statement published in the Senate Journal – the official record of the chamber – on June 29, the Senate’s last day in session.

The senators asked that their statement be included in the journal for June 17, the day the Senate voted to override Gov. Mark Sanford’s veto of most of the increase.

“First, at a time when the South Carolina General Assembly is making severe cuts to other state agency budgets,” the senators wrote, “it is important for state senators to show that the Senate as an institution is willing to share the pain.

“State senators lose their credibility as leaders by increasing the Senate operating budget by 46 percent while other agencies that deliver core government services are having their budgets cut to the bone.”

 

Read the senators' complete statement.

The 46-member chamber’s general fund budget for fiscal year 2011, which started July 1, is $12.3 million, compared to last year’s ratified budget of $8.4 million. Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed $3 million of that increase, though the Senate and House easily overrode the veto.

Both chambers also overrode a separate veto of an additional $1 million earmarked for the Senate for the redrawing of legislative district lines, known as reappointment.

The Senate’s $13.3 million total budget is the chamber’s largest in at least the past 12 years, records show. The Nerve reported last month that the Senate was among only 10 state agencies with proposed general fund budget hikes for this fiscal year.

In their joint written statement, Rose and Davis, who were among 11 senators who voted to sustain Sanford’s veto of the $3 million increase for the Senate’s operating budget, said their chamber could have avoided the hike by:

Allowing smaller, gradual budget increases rather than taking a larger hike “all at once.”


  • Requiring senators to be reimbursed for “actual and verified food and lodging expenses, as required by private businesses and other government agencies, as opposed to giving them “in excess of $130 each day the Senate or House is in session even when no food or lodging expense is incurred.” More than $300,000 would be saved if House and Senate members used the proposed reimbursement method instead of the flat-rate payments, Rose and Davis estimated.

  • Forgoing the $1,000 monthly in-district expense allowance for each senator, which would save $552,000 annually. Rose and Davis noted that their chamber rejected a “modest” proposal by Sens. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, and Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, that would have cut $100, or 10 percent, from the monthly allowance.

  • Adopting a budget every two years as is in done in Texas, where its Legislature meets every other year.


“There are lots of ways to cut here,” Rose told The Nerve last week. “I just want us to share the same (economic) pain with the general public.”

Contacted by The Nerve, Davis said that given the state’s tough economic times over the past several years, “it’s an opportunity for state agencies to think outside the box.”

“The only way that creativity occurs is that it’s forced upon you,” Davis said last week, “and the same is true for the Senate. … I think it’s important as decision makers that we lead by example.”

John Crangle, director of the nonprofit government watchdog group Common Cause of South Carolina, said Rose and Davis have raised “valid” concerns.

“If you look at the cost of a state legislator, not including retirement benefits, it’s 40 grand a year,” Crangle told The Nerve last week.

Besides their annual $10,400 salaries, state lawmakers also receive, according to the state budget and Senate Finance Committee and S.C. Budget and Control Board records:


  • $12,000 annually for in-district expenses;

  • $131 daily in “subsistence” payments for hotels and meals, whether for in- or out-of-session travel on legislative business;

  • $35 per-diem payments for attending a legislative meeting on a non-session day;

  • 50 cents per mile for one weekly round-trip to Columbia from their home districts during session weeks, and the same rate for each round trip on non-session days;

  • Health insurance based on the level of coverage they select, with premiums shared by the state and legislators.


Crangle said lawmakers typically “pocket” most of their $12,000 annual in-district expense payments, which he noted can be used for such things as constituent newsletters or home office costs.

That amount is included when calculating retirement pay for legislators, said Mike Sponhour, spokesman for the state Budget and Control Board, which oversees the state retirement system.

The monthly retirement formula for legislators – a far more generous percentage compared to other state employees – works out to $89.97 times years of service, according to figures provided last week by Sponhour.

Based on those figures, for example, state Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, who has been a senator since 1981, would take home more than $32,000 annually if he retired next year.

Not surprisingly, few lawmakers were rushing this year to cut the Senate’s budget. In a joint written statement printed in the June 17 Senate Journal, Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston; Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence; and five other Republican senators defended the proposed hike, contending that the chamber has been “frugal,” and that is a “core function of government.”

McConnell on the Senate floor in late April said the budget hike was needed because reserves had largely been used up; the Gressette Building housing senators’ offices needs repairs; and money has to be set aside to cover reapportionment costs.

But Rose and Davis in their June 29 Senate Journal statement disputed those reasons.

“We do not believe everything that was said in an attempt to justify this increase to the Senate’s budget is completely accurate,” they wrote. “For example, this increase has nothing to do with reapportionment, as some state senators have claimed; the budget lists the dollars to be expended regarding reapportionment as a separate $1 million line-item appropriation.”

“Nor does this increase have anything to do (nor should it) with the possible structural problems at the Gressette Building,” they continued. “At this point, those problems are unknown and speculative, and at the time they are known, the amount for any repairs should be handled as a separate line-item appropriation.”

McConnell and Leatherman did not respond last week to written requests by The Nerve seeking comment on Rose’s and Davis’ Senate Journal statement.

House leaders contended they saved more than $150,000 this year by taking three furlough weeks during the session, while the Senate took one furlough week. Neither House Clerk Charles Reid nor Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett responded to written questions last week from The Nerve seeking more details on the furloughs.

Elsewhere across the country, a handful of states have proposed various cuts to their legislature’s fiscal year 2011 budgets, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

In Georgia, for example, the House speaker and lieutenant governor proposed furloughing legislators for 11 days, while the House speaker in Kansas proposed furloughing lawmakers for three days and limiting legislators’ daily expenses to 80 days instead of 100 days.

The Illinois House approved a proposal cutting lawmakers’ daily expense reimbursement by $28 and their mileage reimbursement by 11 cents per mile, according to NCSL records. Mississippi lawmakers proposed to temporarily cut legislative pay, while Tennessee legislators offered to freeze their per-diem expenses.

It was unclear, however, whether any of those proposals were enacted.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@scpolicycouncil.com.

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