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Lawmakers Quietly Approve $2.5 Million Budget Hike for S.C. House

The S.C. House of Representatives is poised to receive $2.5 million more than the chamber originally requested for the fiscal year that started Sunday – a last-minute appropriation quietly approved by a state budget conference committee and signed off by the Legislature.

Unless vetoed by Gov. Nikki Haley, the 124-member chamber’s budget for fiscal 2013 will grow by about 14 percent over last fiscal year’s ratified budget to nearly $21.3 million.

That’s on top of a nearly $2.3 million increase the House slipped into its budget a year ago on the last day of the regular legislative session, The Nerve reported then.

In a Feb. 6 written response to The Nerve, House Clerk Charles Reid, the chamber's top-paid administrator, said his chamber has "not requested any change to its appropriations for the upcoming FY 2012-13.”

The Nerve on Tuesday attempted to contact Reid but was informed in an automated email response from him that he will be out of the office until next week.

Contacted Tuesday, Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville and chairman of the House Operations and Management Committee, initially said he didn’t know why the additional $2.5 million was approved in the 11th hour of this year's budget negotiation process.

He later told The Nerve that based on a conversation he had Tuesday afternoon with a staff member of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, the additional $2.5 million is needed to fix electrical problems with the chamber’s sound system and large display boards in the chamber that show House members’ votes.

“We’ve been patching it together to the point where the system is so old that they can’t patch it together and keep it running anymore,” Smith said.

The $2.5 million line item is listed in the conference committee’s budget version under recurring funds, which pay for such things as lawmaker and staff salaries. The line item is described in a budget document known as the "summary control document," which was prepared by the Office of State Budget, as “personal service.”

On the General Assembly's website, the proposed amount is listed under "other operating expenses."

Smith was not a member of the budget conference committee, made up of three House and three Senate members.

The conference committee reached agreement on the fiscal 2013 budget early last week. The General Assembly on Thursday approved the compromise budget, though the state currently is operating under last fiscal year’s budget while Haley prepares her vetoes for the latest budget.

How budget writers arrived at the proposed $2.5 million hike for the House is unknown. Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson and a member of the budget conference committee, did not respond Tuesday to a written message from The Nerve seeking comment.

The House’s top official – Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston – also didn’t respond to written questions from The Nerve.

Unlike most state agencies, neither the House nor 46-member Senate follows the typical appropriations process when it comes to their respective chamber budgets, as The Nerve has repeatedly pointed out.

Neither chamber, for example, submits its proposed budget to the governor, through the Office of State Budget, by a Nov. 1 annual deadline as required by state law. And no one representing the House or Senate appears before budget-writing panels in public hearings to discuss their budget priorities for the upcoming fiscal year.

The practice has led in recent years to largely unexamined budget increases for each chamber. For example, the Senate received a nearly $5 million hike in fiscal 2011, which wasn’t first publicly proposed until more than three months after the Legislature was in session.

Part of that increase covered pay raises for Senate staffers, despite claims by chamber leaders that the money was needed for other pressing concerns, The Nerve reported in 2010.

Only after receiving requests under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act for budget information,Reid and Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett, that chamber's highest-paid administrator, earlier this year told The Nerve that they were not planning to seek increases in their respective 2013 chamber budgets. 

Both Reid and Gossett  received salary hikes this year. Reid’s annual salary jumped by nearly $14,500, or just under 10 percent, to $159,414; while Gossett’s annual salary increased by about $4,500, or nearly 3 percent, to $152,966, according to a state salary database.

The total ratified budgets for the House and Senate for the 2012 fiscal year that just ended were $18.68 million and $12.4 million, respectively, Office of State Budget records show.

The initial proposed House budget for this fiscal year was $18.77 million; for the Senate, it was $12.5 million records show.

The final budget version approved last week by the General Assembly lists the House’s total budget at $21,279,788 - $2.5 million more than what was originally proposed for fiscal 2013, and a nearly $2.6 million, or 13.8 percent, increase over last fiscal year’s ratified budget.

Lawmakers also added $300,000 in the final version of the Senate’s fiscal 2013 budget to fund the existing Joint Citizens and Legislative Committee on Children, records show. A state budget proviso renewed annually requires that $250,000 be given yearly to the Senate for that purpose, though it hasn’t always appeared as a line item in the Office of State Budget's summary control document.

The chambers haven't been hurting for money in recent years, as they typically have carried over millions in reserves. The House, for example, carried over $5.8 million in general funds into fiscal 2012, while the Senate carried over $4 million, OSB records show. Those amounts represented more than 30 percent of the chambers’ total ratified budgets for last fiscal year.

In addition, the Senate carried over another $1.5 million in “other” funds into fiscal 2012; the House amount in that category was $142,457, records show.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.

 

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House Clerk Charles Reid Rep. Garry Smith Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett House Speaker Bobby Harrell Rep. Brian White