By PHILLIP CEASE
On the budget, legislators bid defiance to mere laws
The South Carolina House passed a gas-tax increase this week and a bill aimed at fixing the pension system, while the Senate approved a similar pension bill. Both of these issues, the gas tax and pension reform, received a lot of press — but one piece of legislation, which deals with how tens of billions are spent every year, received no coverage.
Until now: House Bill 3178, which was introduced in the House Committee on Rules this session, would allow that body to vote on up to 10 sections of the state budget at once.
This is a blatant attempt to make an already murky budget process even less transparent. But wait, there’s more. There’s already a law on the books that deals with this very issue.
In 2011, Governor Nikki Haley signed into law a bill which stated that the budget “must be considered section-by-section prior to third reading, and must receive a recorded roll call vote by the House of Representatives and the Senate when the pending question is the adoption of an individual section.” In plain English, this bill, which passed the House unanimously, requires that each section of the budget receive its own vote.
If H.3178 was a bill that would go through the normal legislative process and require the governor to either sign it, veto it, or let it go without signature, it would be an actual law and could change the law already in place. But H. 3178 is a House rules change that doesn’t require the Senate’s input or the governor’s signature – and it apparently supersedes what’s already in the code of law.
It may not seem odd that the House is able to set rules without input from the other chamber or the governor. From how members select their seats to how committees are chosen, there are issues not covered by the state constitution or the code of law. But when the legislature starts to set rules that fly in the face of law or the constitution, alarms should ring.
Let’s do a thought experiment. If the House decides to go down this path of passing rules that usurp laws, House members could be required to snort a rail of cocaine before debating a bill. Senators could require a bong rip before speaking on a piece of legislation. How we could tell the difference is another matter. The base problem with those two rules changes is the same one H.3178 faces: passing rules that break the law.
This year’s budget, as passed by the Ways and Means committee, tops out at more than $26 billion. If this rule passes, it will only take a few votes to spend all that money, even as a law sits on the books, neglected, requiring a vote for every section.