Topics/Categories

Get The Nerve in your in-box every weekday morning!

Governor’s Budget Vetoes Omit Legislature Flouting Law

Gov. Nikki Haley was critical of more than just $57.1 million in legislative appropriations when she vetoed at least that much from this year’s state budget last week.

Haley, after presenting an executive budget to the General Assembly for the first time earlier this year, also called out the budget-writing process itself.

But in explaining her budget vetoes, both in writing and during a State House news conference Friday, Haley did not mention a provision of state law that reinforces her criticism of the process by which the state spending plan is crafted.

Perhaps more importantly, this section of state law mandates public hearings on the budget that the Legislature has not been conducting – thereby denying taxpayers their due input in the setting of the state’s spending priorities.

Of the items Haley whacked from the Legislature’s $23 billion-plus budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, $10 million in one-time funding for teacher raises was one of, if not the, biggest.

Haley also zeroed out the entire operating budgets of the state Sea Grant Consortium ($6 million) and the S.C. Arts Commission (more than $3.4 million plus another $500,000 in grants), along with a slew of what she described as good old-fashioned pork projects and earmarks.

Those include $4 million for an advanced plant technology lab at Clemson University; $1.25 million for construction of a new administration building at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities; and $750,000 for window replacement at the Wil Lou Gray Opportunity School.

But beyond specific line items, Haley also took aim at the big picture of the budget and how it’s put together.

“The structure of our General Appropriations Act (the budget) does not lend itself to a reasonable debate – we may disagree over relatively small portions of many lines,” she wrote in her 26 pages of vetoes.

However, Haley continued, “My veto pen is a blunt tool, and I only have the option of vetoing entire lines and potentially destroying entire programs where only part is desirable.”

Concluding her point, she said, “The current process lacks the transparency that would allow a project by project debate between the executive and legislative branches; this is unfair to the taxpayer.”

Yet if Haley wanted to hammer the Legislature on this issue – or just drive home the point period – she missed a golden opportunity by leaving out what state law mandates in the budget process.

Title 11, Chapter 11 of the S.C. Code requires the governor to present a proposed budget to the General Assembly within five days of each annual legislative session starting.

Haley did so in January.

The code also says the Legislature’s appropriations committees – Senate Finance and House Ways and Means – must then hold joint public hearings on the governor’s spending plan within five days of receiving it.

Guess what? No such meetings took place this year – or last year, or the year before that, or the year before that, or – well – you get the picture.

At least, that’s the story told to The Nerve by some longtime incumbent legislators and other knowledgeable observers.

But if the appropriations committees did conduct joint public hearings on the budget, the sessions would provide a venue for precisely the kind of transparency and “project by project debate between the executive and legislative branches” that Haley, in her written vetoes message, bemoans as absent in the process.

The code says so practically verbatim. The governor has “the right to sit at these public hearings and be heard on all matters coming before the joint committee,” the law says.

Moreover, joint public hearings by the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees could afford taxpayers an opportunity to be heard as well.

Again from the code: “(A)ll persons interested in the (budget) estimates under consideration” shall be admitted to the meetings.

During the news conference Haley held Friday to talk about her budget vetoes, The Nerve asked her whether joint public hearings by the appropriations committees, as required by law, would rectify the problems she identified in the process.

But Haley did not address the point.

Instead, she defended the crafting of her executive budget as an eminently public proceeding and said no one should be surprised by her vetoes.

“What they’re going to continue to see is we are practicing what we preach,” Haley went on to say. “We are continuing to say that we’re not going to throw darts at people because of who they are. We’re not going to turn around and play games with the budget. This is serious stuff.”

Indeed, the General Assembly had planned to wait several weeks before taking up Haley’s vetoes. But because the new fiscal year already has begun, legislators plan to reconvene next week to address them.

Overriding a veto takes a two-thirds vote by both chambers of the Legislature, beginning with the House.

Nerve intern Kelli Weston contributed to this report.

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

Accountability Budget General Assembly Transparency Legislative Power Trip

S.C. General Assembly Gov. Nikki Haley