House, Senate chambers sitting on huge reserves while seeking more tax dollars
By RICK BRUNDRETT
The S.C. House and Senate know how to take care of each other – with taxpayer money.
As The Nerve reported in September, the 124-member House carried over $25 million in general funds in its chamber budget for this fiscal year, which started July 1 – nearly $2.9 million more than its total $22.2 million budget for last fiscal year.
The 46-member Senate had $6.1 million in reserves as of July 1, which represented 43 percent of its $14.3 million chamber budget for 2017-18.
The two chambers made the top-10 list of state agencies with the highest percentage of reserves compared to their general-fund appropriations last fiscal year, The Nerve’s review found at the time. The Legislature routinely carries over millions in tax dollars every year for its operations, under a state budget proviso that allows them to keep all unspent funds.
Now, the House and Senate each want $250,000 more in their respective chamber budgets for “other operating expenses” next fiscal year. As the full House debated the proposed, approximately $30 billion state budget last week, Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Anderson, introduced separate amendments to reject the requested increases, which he pointed out would be for “every year hereafter unless we change it again.”
Hill, noting he had contacted the state Comptroller General’s Office, said the House and Senate reserves as of Dec. 31 – the midway point through this fiscal year – were $25 million and $6.1 million, respectively – the same figures reported by The Nerve in September.
“We’re not short on cash,” Hill said. “We have plenty to do what we need to do.”
Hill said the proposed $250,000 increases would not be used for House or Senate staff raises, but rather would be designated for such things as mail and per-diem expenses for “us legislators.” The Nerve in October reported about the growing number of higher-paid legislative staffers.
Some of Hill’s colleagues were quick to challenge his amendments.
“I would hope that the Senate not mess with our operating budget,” said Rep. John King, D-York. “I think there’s always been an agreement with the House and Senate if they want to reduce their (own chamber’s) budget, they would do it themselves.”
Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, contended that not getting the $250,000 increase would “incentivize folks to spend money because they have it so they get it again next year.”
Despite their large annual reserves, the House and Senate chambers’ total budgets have grown by about 19 percent and 50 percent, respectively, over inflation from fiscal 2010 to this fiscal year, state budget records reviewed by The Nerve show. The House and Senate budgets this fiscal year are $22.4 million and $14.8 million, respectively.
Rep. Micah Caskey, R-Lexington, said during last week’s floor debate that the extra $250,000 for the House was needed to help pay for outside consultants to study the proposed sale of state-owned utility Santee Cooper. He also said that “often times, we have to defend lawsuits from bills and amendments.”
“I’m not aware of the House running short on any funds for any kind of legal expenses,” Hill replied.
Reps. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, and Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, requested to table Hill’s amendments. The House overwhelmingly approved Bannister’s and Taylor’s motions after rejecting Hill’s requests for roll-call votes on the procedural moves.
In final roll-call votes on the budget sections, the House approved the $250,000 increase for the Senate chamber by a 100-1 vote, with Hill casting the sole “no” vote.
The House approved the $250,000 hike for its own chamber by a 105-3 vote. Joining Hill in voting “no” were Anderson County Republican Reps. West Cox and Brian White, the former House Ways and Means chairman who was removed from the committee by House speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, in December, about a month after this Nerve story.
The state budget is now under consideration by the Senate Finance Committee and will be presented afterward to the full Senate. The Senate and House will work out any differences in a joint conference committee, and a final budget version will be sent to Gov. Henry McMaster for his consideration.
Unlike other state agencies, the House and Senate typically have not let the public see their chamber budgets in advance of the legislative budget debates, as The Nerve has reported. Their proposed spending plans for 2019-20 are not listed on the state Executive Budget Office’s website, in contrast to other state agencies – including, for example, the Judicial Department, which represents the judicial branch of government – that submitted their requested budgets last fall, as required by law.
The chambers also have long ignored the state law requiring their budget-writing committees to hold joint public hearings on the governor’s proposed overall state budget, beginning within five days after the executive spending plan is presented to the Legislature.
The Nerve this week sent written requests to Senate president Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee; Senate clerk Jeff Gossett; Lucas; and House clerk Charles Reid for details about the proposed $250,000 increases for their respective chambers, and for comment about why they need relatively large reserves.
None of them responded.
Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.
Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.