The General Assembly passed a college spending transparency and flexibility bill on Wednesday, marking the end of a long, up-and-down journey that took the measure through the odyssey of the legislative process.
The bill, S. 172, is expected to become law, according to legislators monitoring it.
The legislation is a hybrid of two higher education issues that were combined into one bill in an effort to increase the odds of both making it through the Legislature, those lawmakers say.
One part of the bill requires state-supported colleges and universities to report all of their expenditures in searchable registers on the Internet. The information, including state-issued credit card purchases, would list the payee and amount of each transaction along with a description of it.
The other part of the bill gives public institutions more leeway to expedite their construction projects and procurement procedures.
The Senate initially passed the bill as a transparency-only proposal. When it got to the House, that chamber tacked on the flexibility provisions.
But the two chambers disagreed on the flexibility components. And, in an unusual development, a joint House-Senate conference committee had to rework a compromise draft of the bill that it had agreed to in order to settle their differences.
That process, occurring as it did at the very end of the regular legislative session, nearly felled the bill. But, at the proverbial 11th hour on Wednesday, the House and Senate concurred on the new compromise version and signed off on it.
Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester and the original author of the bill, says he can live with the flexibility components and the fact that they were added to his legislation.
“So this is a case that’s better to get 80 percent of what you want than zero percent,” Rose says. “But I was personally just promoting the transparency part anyway. But they got lumped together.”
“My mother used to say,” Rose added, “all’s well that ends well.”
The Nerve has reported extensively on the bill. Most other South Carolina media largely have ignored it, except in the run-up to the session when House Republican Caucus bosses trumpeted college spending transparency as one of their priorities during a news conference, with a few six-figure-salaried representatives of the schools in tow.
After that, the coverage void set in, even as both chambers passed separate transparency bills but had failed to act on each other’s as the end of the session approached.
Then, following a May 17 story by The Nerve detailing the impasse, lawmakers got moving on the issue again with just three weeks left in the session.
Rose and state Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, who has spearheaded online government spending transparency in South Carolina, credit Francis Marion University President Fred Carter with getting the ball rolling in the higher education arena.
Rose also gives a shout-out to Eckstrom, former Francis Marion legislative liaison Daniel Dukes, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.
Sen. John Courson, R-Richland and chairman of the conference committee, says Rose refused to let the issue die in the General Assembly. “He was very persistent on this,” Courson says. “He bird-dogged it. He deserves an awful lot of credit for this legislation passing.”
Courson says colleges and universities need the flexibility provisions. Those elements provide the institutions with some regulatory relief in their development projects and procurement guidelines.
“Because of inflation I think they need it,” Courson says, “and I think the deregulation components are important because I think it saves money. It saves them money and taxpayers money.”
The bill helps free schools from a lengthy approval process that can end with higher construction costs, the senator says.
“For example,” he says, “on ground leases, nine institutions in the state now have it. The rest of them do not. So, they have to come to the General Assembly, get us to approve it. Then it has to go to the Joint Bond Review Committee, and then to the Budget and Control Board. And it’s just a laborious process.”
Ground leases, in fact, were one of the issues on which some House and Senate members disagreed.
The first conference committee version of the bill included authority for all public higher eds to enter into a ground lease. Also called a land lease, it is an agreement whereby a private entity builds and leases something on a college campus for a period of years and then turns it over to the school when the lease expires.
Rep. Rick Quinn, a Lexington County Republican who served on the conference committee, objected to expanding ground leases. Quinn also opposed the panel’s adoption of an increased cap on tuition waivers from 4 percent to 8 percent of a school’s undergraduate student population.
Quinn took his objections to the House and worked against that chamber passing the bill.
Subsequently, the conference committee reconvened and stripped those two parts out of it.
“I mean we need to get the other components of this thing done this year,” Quinn said afterward. “So I’m happy that it’s moving forward.”
Among other things, the flexibility terms would:
- Allow for purchases of land or buildings of up to $250,000 to take place without Joint Bond Review Committee and Budget and Control Board approval. Instead, staff members from the committee and the board would advise in such buys.
- Permit the institutions to hire attorneys for bond issuances and certain other financial matters without having to seek the OK of the state attorney general, as is required now.
- Exempt multistate acquisitions of goods and services from the state procurement code if schools can demonstrate a cost savings in those transactions.
- Form a group to study and recommend ways to create a separate human resources system for the schools.
Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.