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Legislature Flouts Law Requiring Joint Public Hearings on Budget

It looks like the S.C. General Assembly’s two appropriations committees once again are flouting a provision of state law requiring the panels to hold joint public hearings on the state budget.

Under Title 11, Chapter 11 of the S.C. Code of Laws, the budget-writing process begins with the governor submitting a recommended spending plan to the presiding officers of the House and Senate within five days of the annual legislative session beginning.

Gov. Nikki Haley met that requirement, beating the deadline by two days in unveiling her proposed budget for the upcoming 2012-13 fiscal year on Jan. 13. This year’s legislative session began Jan. 10.

The new budget year starts July 1.

After the governor presents a proposed budget to the Legislature, its appropriations committees “shall sit jointly in open sessions while considering” it, the law says.

And, the code says, those joint open sessions must begin within five days of lawmakers receiving the governor’s proposed budget.

So, with Haley having put forth her spending plan on Jan. 13, the five-day deadline for combined public hearings on it by the committees – Senate Finance and House Ways and Means – is today.

That’s counting only business days and not counting the federal and state Martin Luther King Jr. holiday last Monday.

So, what about those joint public appropriations committee hearings on the governor’s budget?

Nope, none, nada, as the glossy halls of the State House and the Capitol complex reverberate only the sound of silence on this matter. But, evidently it’s just a little inconvenience of the law that the most important parties it pertains to would rather ignore, and simply hope it goes away.

Neither Haley communications director Rob Godfrey nor Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, nor House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, responded to phone and email messages from The Nerve last week seeking comment on this apparently willful disregard of the law by the appropriations committees.

In White’s case, it seems to be a classic case of “meet the new boss – same as the old boss.”

This is White’s inaugural legislative session and first budget-writing cycle as Ways and Means head. He has been a member of the committee since 2005.

Previously the House Rules Committee chairman, White succeeds former Rep. Dan Cooper, a co-worker of White’s at Capstone Insurance Services and likewise a Republican from Anderson County. Cooper was Ways and Means chairman from 2005, the same year White joined the committee, until resigning from the Legislature in June.

But whether in recent years or modern decades, some longtime sets of legislative eyes do not remember ever seeing the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees get together for open sessions on a governor’s budget.

“I’ve never known of that to occur,” says Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens. Martin was a House member from 1979 to 1992, and he has served in the Senate since 1993. That’s a combined 33 years in the Legislature.

Martin says he has not served on either appropriations committee in his tenure as a lawmaker. But he says he has followed the budget process closely, and in addition to being unaware of any joint public appropriations hearings on an executive budget, “I don’t know that the point has ever been raised.”

For his part, the senator says he did not know the law requires such sessions. “Unless that’s repealed I think they (the committee chairmen) ought to look at doing that,” Martin adds.

On the other end of the experience spectrum, second-term Sen. Kevin Bryant, who also is a Republican from Anderson County, says he agrees. “If the law says we’re supposed to do it, we’re supposed to do it, in my opinion,” Bryant says.

On the other side of the aisle, meanwhile, Sen. John Land of Clarendon County is the minority Democratic Caucus leader in the Senate. Land has been a legislator even longer than Martin – 37 years, all but two of them as a senator.

Land too says there’s been no such thing as the appropriations committees convening joint public hearings on a governor’s budget. “No, we’ve never done that,” says Land, a member of the Senate Finance panel.

Land says he sees “no value whatsoever” in the required sessions.

Why not?

“Well, because we end up that way,” he says.

Land says the S.C. Constitution stipulates that appropriations bills must originate in the House, and the yearly state spending plan does so under the Legislature’s budget-writing protocols.

That process takes the budget from the House to the Senate. Then it goes to what’s called a conference committee of three House members and three senators who work out differences between the two chambers’ versions.

That committee’s proceedings are open to the public, Land says. “So, we do it in a sense, but not, ‘joint public hearings.’”

After both chambers approve the conference committee’s work the governor receives the budget with the option to veto all or parts of it, Land notes. “And that’s how it goes.”

It is indeed. But other legislators, such as Martin and Bryant, say the law is the law and the Legislature – which, after all, wrote the code – ought to adhere to it.

“If we’re not going to have these joint meetings we need to take that law out,” Bryant says. “But I think it would be better to do it because it gives the executive budget a full review.”

Bryant, who also sits on the Senate Finance Committee, says he has broached the subject with one of the appropriations chairmen and plans to take it up with the other in the near future.

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.

Budget General Assembly

Rep. Dan Cooper Sen. Larry Martin Sen. Hugh Leatherman Gov. Nikki Haley Sen. Kevin Bryant Rep. Brian White Rob Godfrey Sen. John Land S.C. General Assembly