The S.C. Senate this week is continuing to debate a restructuring bill that goes a long way toward overhauling state government but – to some informed observers – falls short of true, comprehensive reform.
How the Senate got to where it is on the issue also concerns some reform advocates. Indeed, it has been an uphill fight even to arrive at this point, and the same is likely true going forward.
Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, told The Nerve on Monday that he and some other senators plan to help Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, lead a filibuster against the bill in an effort to defeat it in their chamber.
At the center of this restructuring battle is the Budget and Control Board (BCB), a hybrid of the executive and legislative branches of state government. Widely described as unique to South Carolina, the BCB consists of an agency and a five-member board, both of the same name.
The BCB agency performs many central administrative functions of state government, such as managing employee benefits programs, which in other states are under the jurisdiction of governors.
The BCB board, meanwhile, controls several critical areas of state finances, such as construction projects and land transactions. The board consists of the governor, comptroller general, treasurer and the chairmen of the two legislative appropriations committees – Senate Finance and House Ways and Means.
The Budget and Control Board has long been criticized as an unaccountable hydra that tramples the constitutional separation-of-powers doctrine, fostering inefficiency and dysfunction in state government.
“We’ve had decades of studies recommending that the board should be abolished and most of its duties turned over to the governor,” The State newspaper editorialized on Sunday, “and for years, the House has passed bills that moved in that direction, though not nearly far enough.”
Such was the case in 2011, when the House passed the bill the Senate plans to take up again this week, H. 3066.
Sponsored by Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, the bill as passed by the House created a Department of Administration in the governor’s cabinet to take over many of the BCB’s administrative duties.
But the House-passed version kept the BCB intact and maintained some of its key responsibilities, including oversight and management of state employee benefits.
Along those lines, the next major development in the legislation occurred toward the end of last year’s legislative session, when a bipartisan group of six senators introduced an amendment that completely reworked the bill.
The amended version eliminated the BCB board and agency and created a cabinet-level Department of Administration in its place.
In a historic vote, the Senate unanimously adopted the amendment 43-0, with just three members of the chamber not participating in the vote.
That’s the version of the bill pending before the Senate now and awaiting a final vote of approval by the chamber. If that happens, it likely would then go to a House-Senate committee to work out their differences on the legislation.
In any case, while the Senate’s vote to abolish the BCB marked a tectonic shift, the amendment drew the contempt of Gov. Nikki Haley, who decried it as a poison pill aimed at sinking the bill.
Haley is championing creation of a Department of Administration as one of her signatures goals. But in criticizing the Senate’s amendment last year, she arguably seemed more concerned with being able to take credit for something passing rather than the substance of whatever might become law.
In a State House news conference, Haley emphasized that she wanted the Senate to pass at least two restructuring bills so she could tell South Carolinians that her administration had accomplished the goal.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t long before the Senate’s amendment ran into additional opposition, because it preserved elements of the BCB’s mingled powers in a new entity dubbed the State Financial Affairs Authority.
That authority would exercise powers similar to those the BCB board wields, and it would have almost the same composition.
Because of that, and based on recommendations from The Nerve’s parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council, Republican Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort County drafted another amendment to overhaul the bill.
The Davis amendment clearly separates virtually all Budget and Control board powers and duties between the executive and legislative branches. The senator introduced his amendment in the final days of last year’s session, and the clock ran out before the chamber took it up.
So, when this year’s session began last month, the Senate picked up the restructuring debate where it had left off in 2011.
In the third week of the session, on Jan. 25, Davis moved for the Senate to skip over some 50 other pending amendments to the bill and take up his amendment. But with the request requiring unanimous consent, Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, objected.
Then last Tuesday, after meeting among themselves, Sens. Davis, Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, and Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, proposed yet another amendment to retool the entire bill. And with unanimous consent, the Senate began debating that amendment.
It goes farther than the bill as currently amended from last year, but the Davis-Massey-Sheheen amendment still falls short of what some reform advocates would like to see.
“Tom gave a nice speech about why they needed to consider the amendment he was proposing,” says Talbert Black, state coordinator of the Campaign for Liberty. “But when it came down to it, he along with these other senators made a compromise among themselves. So, yeah, the grassroots are disappointed.”
“It’s not the reform that we expect to get,” adds Black, who also is founder of the Palmetto Liberty Political Action Committee.
Black cites a quasi-legislative/executive panel to handle bond transactions as an example of what he dislikes about the Davis-Massey-Sheheen amendment.
Efforts to reach Davis on Monday were unsuccessful.
Massey, who helped Davis and Sheheen craft the latest amendment, says it is an attempt to narrow the points of contention holding up the bill in the Senate: oversight of procurement, bonding, the retirement system and agency deficits.
Massey says certain senators were picking the Davis amendment apart “piece by piece.” That process, he says, made it clear where the points of disagreement were, so the three senators got together to come up with a proposal to address them.
“There was absolutely nothing secretive about it,” Massey says.
Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston and a longtime restructuring advocate, agrees.
“It’s not a backroom deal because whatever comes out has to be voted on in open session,” says Campsen, who has signed onto the Davis-Massey-Sheheen amendment. “That’s the way amendments are almost always developed in both bodies (the House and Senate).”
Massey says he understands not everyone will be happy with what the Senate does. And if it were up to him alone, he says he would go a lot farther than the latest amendment does. “But you also have the practical realities of politics that you’ve got to deal with.”
Some of those facts of legislative life could be right around the corner.
“What Leatherman, who is chairman of Finance, is going to do is filibuster, and he’s got a team of senators who are going to help him with that,” Ford told The Nerve.
Ford says he is part of the team, along with Sens. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, Yancey McGill, D-Williamsburg, and Leventis.
Although Sheheen, a Democrat, is helping to lead the charge for restructuring in the Senate, it looks like he might be facing a rebellion on the issue from members of his own party.
Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.