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$2.5 Million for S.C. House Sound System Repairs – Really?

Nearly two months after state lawmakers quietly slipped in an additional $2.5 million for the S.C. House chamber’s budget for this fiscal year, House leaders continue to be tight-lipped about specifics on how the tax dollars will be used.

Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville and chairman of the House Operations and Management Committee, told The Nerve in early July that a staff member of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee informed him the money was needed to fix electrical problems with the chamber’s sound system and large display boards in the chamber that show House members’ votes.

But a longtime professional installer who worked on the House sound system in the spring told The Nerve last week that the problem was fixed then.

“It is a brand new system,” said Sid Gattis, owner of Gattis Pro Audio Inc. of Lexington. “It’s the same type of technology but vastly superior in its performance.”

Asked about the $2.5 million, Gattis replied, “I don’t know where those numbers came from,” adding that he jokingly told a friend who first informed him about the appropriation, “If the sound system cost $2.5 million, I need the rest of my check.”

Gattis said he was told that the chamber's speakers might be replaced in the future, though he estimated the cost of that project likely wouldn't run more than $150,000.

The $2.5 million appropriation is being funded with recurring funds, which typically pay for such things as lawmaker and staff salaries. In a budget document known as the “summary control document,” prepared by the Office of State Budget, the line item is described only as “personal service.”

The additional $2.5 million is on top of a nearly $2.3 million increase the House chamber received last fiscal year, which ended June 30. The Nerve reported earlier this month that the House was on track to spend nearly $900,000 more last fiscal year in salaries for its higher-paid employees, including raises ranging up to 55 percent.

Vouchers provided last week by House Clerk Charles Reid to The Nerve under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act show that Gattis’ firm was paid $244,247 for work this year on the chamber’s sound system. That amount represents 77 percent of the more than $315,000 spent by the House over the past two fiscal years on repairs to the system.

Another nearly $11,000 was spent during that period on travel, lodging, food and other miscellaneous expenses for Michael Schwartz, co-founder of a Colorado-based company called Deliberative Designs Consulting, who worked with Gattis on fixing the sound system. Records show that Schwartz stayed at the upscale Whitney Hotel in Columbia.

In addition, $19,600 was paid over the last two fiscal years to a Virginia company, known as International Roll-Call, to maintain the House chamber’s voting-board display system, though documents provided to The Nerve didn’t indicate if there were any repairs done to that system.

When the General Assembly is in session, House and Senate roll-call votes are recorded and tallied for the respective chambers on the Legislature’s website. Lawmakers typically are in session from mid-January through early June, though they didn’t wrap up their work this year until mid-July.

Gattis said he informed a legislative staff member two years ago about likely problems with the 14-year-old sound system that the 124-member House uses, but was informed then there was no extra budget money to address those issues.

He said he and Schwartz were called in earlier this year after the sound system quit working one day while the House was in session.

“When you’re putting in 120-some microphones that can be turned on at the same time, it’s like giving a bunch of monkeys guns,” he joked.

Gattis, who started his company in 1996, said he is confident about the quality of the sound system he helped install, noting, “If it fails – which it’s not going to fail, but if it does – there is a redundant back-up system that kicks in automatically.”

Contacted Monday, Smith said he had no specifics on plans for the $2.5 million appropriation, though he added that “we’re trying to be good stewards of the state’s money.”

Smith said his Operations and Management Committee has oversight of the Blatt Building, where House members’ offices are located, on the State House grounds. But the committee has no jurisdiction over repairs in the House chamber, he said.

Asked who does, Smith said the chamber’s day-to-day operations are managed by Reid, who is “advised by the House speaker.” 

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, did not respond Monday to written and phone messages from the The Nerve seeking comment. Reid did not respond last week to follow-up written questions from The Nerve seeking specifics on the $2.5 million appropriation.

Harrell and Reid serve as ex-officio members of Smith’s committee. Both men signed the vouchers provided to The Nerve under the Freedom of Information Act.

The $2.5 million appropriation brought the House chamber’s budget for this fiscal year, which started July 1, to nearly $21.3 million, an increase of about 14 percent from last fiscal year’s ratified budget. The additional amount was first listed in a conference committee’s budget version at the tail end of the budget process.

Unlike most state agencies, neither the House nor 46-member Senate follows the typical appropriation process when it comes to their respective chamber budgets, as The Nerve has previously pointed out. No one representing the chambers, for example, appears before budget-writing panels in public hearings to discuss their budget priorities for the upcoming fiscal year.

The additional $2.5 million appropriated for the House chamber for this fiscal year was on top of a nearly $2.3 million increase the House slipped into its budget in June 2011 on the last day of the regular legislative session, The Nerve reported then

A good chunk of that increase went for raises for higher-paid House staff, The Nerve reported earlier this month. Reid, the chamber’s top-paid administrator, received a $14,492, or nearly 10 percent, raise last fiscal year, bringing his annual salary to $159,414.

As of March, 32 House staffers earning at least $50,000 annually had received raises ranging from 5 percent to 55 percent, The Nerve’s review found. Harrell's spokesman Greg Foster, for example, saw his annual salary jump 22 percent to $85,000.

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

 

Accountability Budget General Assembly Transparency Legislative Power Trip

House Clerk Charles Reid Rep. Garry Smith House Speaker Bobby Harrell Greg Foster