Standing in front of reporters and flanked by a huddle of agency heads with little to do but look solemn, Gov. Nikki Haley unveiled her 2013-14 executive state budget Thursday morning in the lobby of the State House.
Although Haley released her budget well within a state deadline, the 170-member General Assembly likely will thumb its collective nose again at another budget law, if past practice is any indicator.
Under Title 11, Chapter 11 of S.C. Code of Laws, within five days of the Legislature receiving the governor’s budget, the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees are required to hold joint public hearings to discuss it. In theory, it’s a process meant to encourage transparency and civic participation.
In practice, the hearings haven’t occurred in living memory, as the House and Senate control every aspect of the budget-writing process, with the governor’s only real input coming after the fact in the form of her veto pen.
On Thursday, Haley was asked her thoughts about the two chambers having ignored for so long the joint-hearings law (Section 11-11-90) that open-government advocates say would both give her budget more authority and allow for more transparency in government.
Haley didn’t exactly rush to defend the law.
“I think that’s between the House and the Senate to deal with,” she said in response to a reporter’s question. “I think they need to look at the laws. I think they need to see if they’re in compliance.”
“But look,” Haley continued, “we work so hard. I will tell you, when we finished and this budget passed last year, my staff didn’t even get two weeks break before they started working on this (year’s budget).
“I wish people understood how much time and thought goes into putting this in, because what I don’t want is this to be thrown in the trash can. What I will tell you is these are very real numbers that matter to us.”
But Haley’s and past governors’ budgets haven’t gotten full attention in part, observers say, because the Legislature has ignored the joint-hearings law for decades. And now, state Sens. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw; Larry Martin, R-Pickens; and Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, have filed a government-restructuring bill (S. 22) that includes language to strike the law from the books entirely.
Advocates for transparency in state government contend that by dodging the issue, Haley is missing a trick.
“It seems to me the least we could do to provide oversight and transparency in our budgeting process is enforce the laws on the books, laws that would help the governor, in this case,” said Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League. “I think, unfortunately, it’s a broader problem, that laws on the books are routinely ignored. Essentially, the attitude of the ignoring entity, in this case the Legislature, is ‘I dare you to sue us.’”
“When the public has to take legal action to achieve even the most basic level of legal compliance, it’s a bad sign,’ Beach continued. “And then for senators to say, ‘We’ve failed to comply with the law over the last decade, so we decided we want to change the law to comply with our behavior rather than the other way around,’ there’s an arrogance there that’s unsettling.”
That the House and Senate have ignored state law in the budget-writing process doesn’t surprise Talbert Black, coordinator of South Carolina Campaign for Liberty.
“What surprises me is that they’ve finally taken enough notice of it to want to kill it,” he said.
“The statute on the books is extremely important because it gives a method for whole budget process to be open to anyone who wants to come in and testify.” Black said. “The way that it’s segmented now through all the various subcommittees, the only people who end up going into the subcommittee hearings to testify are those who want the money.”
“The way it (the joint-hearings law) is written, anyone who wants to come in and testify has to be allowed to,” Black continued. “The way it is practiced now, the only place you’re allowed to testify is in subcommittee hearings. Even when it goes to full committee, you can go in and watch the proceedings, but you can’t testify. Then, of course, before the Senate or House, nobody can testify, either.”
Charleston School of Law constitutional law professor John Simpkins – who also is serving as the legal expert for the governor’s committee on ethics reform that met last week – said the proposed legislation to delete the joint-hearings law strikes him as an effort by lawmakers to make legal what has been common practice.
“I think (the legislation) recognizes the reality of the fact that really, appropriation measures were for all intents and purposes to take place in the Legislature,” Simpkins said. “While the governor has to present a budget, that budget is taken as a starting point and as a practical matter doesn’t represent what will come out in the final analysis.”
Simpkins added, though, “I think the executive office should have greater input into the budget process and a greater role in spending decisions just like the federal government has.”
Harry Kibler, founder of RINO Hunt, believes that the Senate wants to legislate itself into legal compliance by deleting the joint-hearings law.
“I don’t know why it’s so hard to get our legislators to follow the law, which in this case is a dadgum good law that’s supposed to give the public input on the state budget,” he said. “Why won’t or why hasn’t anyone enforced it up ‘til now?”
“I’m a grown man and I can deal with reality,” Kibler continued, “but I’m sick and tired of the disingenuousness and outright lies from our legislators that we’re a transparent state. How transparent can you be when you have existing law not followed; then when people find out, instead of becoming transparent, you try to change the law to prevent it?”
Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809 or firstname.lastname@example.org