A Budget So Good It Doesn’t Need Debating

June 10, 2014

Inside Insight

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House members only signNO DEBATE THIS YEAR. JUST A FEW BACKROOM DEALS.

It’s no secret that South Carolina lawmakers like to, well, keep things secret. They’ve long resisted attempts to require the disclosure of their private income; they’ve fought hard to maintain their power to police their own conduct; and they’ve steadfastly resisted any attempt to delete their exemption from the Freedom of Information Act.

They just like keeping things in the dark.

But the most blatant example of keeping the public in the dark is their annual refusal to follow the state law requiring joint open hearings on the governor’s budget. Each year, South Carolina legislators ignore the state law requiring them to hold joint open hearings on the budget. The law is intended to give the public some idea of what the total state budget looks like when lawmakers begin debating it in January. What lawmakers follow instead is a fractured process that keeps the budget, for all practical purposes, a secret.

At least, though, the public would see the budget debated toward the end the session. It might be too late to do anything about it, but at least the “debate,” such as it was, would happen.

But not this year.

Ordinarily, after the House and Senate pass their state budget bills, the House will vote to “not concur” with the Senate version, and then a conference committee is created. That allows House and Senate members to publicly debate the differences between their bills – which in turn gives the public a basic understanding of what’s actually in the budget in the first place. This year, after the Senate passed its version of the budget, leaders of both chambers – specifically Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman and House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White (and their staffers, according to Senator Leatherman) – worked on a compromise deal in order to avoid a conference committee.

During the last week of this legislative session, Rep. White introduced the secretly prearranged compromise budget amendment, and with virtually no debate the amendment was passed. Later that same day, the Senate took up the recently amended budget bill. And after a speech from Sen. Leatherman assuring that the Senate that they got at least two-thirds of what they wanted in the bill and urging the body to concur, they concurred with little debate and with only ten senators voting against.

So, why all the secrecy? Why all the rush to pass without debate? Was it so they wouldn’t have to point out the fact that they’re passing a budget, at roughly $25.5 billion, that is roughly $1 billion higher than last year’s bloated budget? Was it the fact that it included a proviso giving lawmakers a de facto $12,000 annual raise? Was it the massive hike to the Deal Closing Fund – cash doled out to private companies – to over $45 million? Was it the enormous number of special projects and pork thrown into the budget in the Senate late one Thursday evening?

Draw your own conclusions. However, given lawmakers’ insistence on keeping their constituents out of the debate on what is the most important piece of legislation passed each year, it’s a reasonable conclusion that either they don’t think you care, they’re trying to hide something, or both.

Jones is a policy analyst with the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve.