After Nerve Story, Higher Ed Transparency Bill Revived

June 2, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveA bill requiring South Carolina’s state-supported colleges and universities to report their spending online has risen from the dead and looks like it might pass today – the last day of this year’s regular legislative session.

On May 17, The Nerve reported that college spending transparency legislation appeared to be headed toward the graveyard for the second consecutive year, even though it is widely supported in the General Assembly.

Then, two days after that story was posted, a funny thing happened: The House, in a move that doesn’t happen every day, recalled a higher ed transparency bill from committee, reviving the prospects of the good-government measure passing this session.

The chief sponsor of the bill, Republican Sen. Mike Rose of Dorchester County, says he believes that it will. “I expect all of this to be a done deal tomorrow,” Rose told The Nerve on Wednesday in a brief phone interview between Senate votes on a rush of last-minute business.

Rose says he is “very happy” that his bill is poised to pass. “It’s been a three-year battle to get the institutions of higher education to disclose how they spend their money,” he says.

Indeed, Rose and other lawmakers say the schools employed their taxpayer-funded lobbyists to thwart the legislation in sessions past. “They had lobbyists that worked against it, and then they tried to water it down,” the senator says.

But this year, seeing the transparency train headed their way, the schools have relented in their opposition and gotten out of its way, lawmakers say.

In fact, a few public universities, including Clemson, Coastal Carolina and Francis Marion, as well as several technical colleges already have gotten with the program and begun posting their expenditures online.

Rose’s bill, S. 172, would require all state-supported higher eds to do so for every dime “from whatever source for whatever purpose.”

For each transaction, the schools would have to disclose its amount, the payee and a description of the expense.

The data would have to be provided in searchable registers that are updated at least once a month. Reimbursements for expenses would be included in the registers, but salaries, wages and any personal identifying information would not be.

“And it’s not just the checks that are written but also the credit card statements,” Rose notes.

(The S.C. Freedom of Information Act provides for disclosure of state and local public employee salaries.)

Three years ago, Republican state Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom launched a campaign to make the spending of every public dollar in South Carolina viewable on the Internet in databases easy to navigate and understand.

The Palmetto State’s taxpayer-supported colleges and universities, and a pair of school districts, are the last holdouts.

On a 39-0 vote, the Senate gave Rose’s bill the second of three required readings on Feb. 3. But the proposed law then languished in the chamber for seven weeks before the Senate gave it third reading on March 24 and sent it to the House.

In that chamber the legislation was sent to the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, where it again twisted in the wind for nearly two months.

For its part, the House had passed its own virtually identical college spending transparency bill – H. 3185, sponsored by Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston – less than a month into the session and likewise sent it to the Senate.

But neither chamber was acting on the other’s bill.

In the Senate, where one member can block legislation, the House version ran into bipartisan obstructionism. Sens. John Courson, R-Richland, and Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, have been contesting it for at least two months. More recently, Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, has joined them in slowing down the bill.

However, two days after The Nerve’s initial report indicating that higher ed spending transparency was looking dead this year, the House took the unusual step of recalling Rose’s bill from the Ways and Means Committee.

The committee chairman, Rep. Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, moved to have it recalled.

The House then amended the bill, adding provisions to streamline the approval process for college and university construction projects and procurement, and sent it back to the Senate for acceptance of the amendments.

Rose says he expects the Senate to tweak the changes more to its liking. But, he says, “I think the House will concur with it.”

With few exceptions, predicting outcomes in the Legislature is perilous. But if lawmakers do get higher ed transparency done before the clock runs out on the session, it’ll be an 11th-hour accomplishment of a goal House leaders, and bigwigs from some of the schools themselves, trumpeted with much fanfare in the run-up to the session.

The back story on this issue, meanwhile, appears to be streamlining schools’ building projects and procurement procedures.

Not surprisingly, that is a priority for the institutions, which say it would save them significant amounts of money and time. And in The Nerve’s first report, Courson said legislation to that effect would have to pass in tandem with spending transparency, or neither would pass.

Asked whether he sees that assertion as a lack of support needed in the Legislature to pass a clean higher ed transparency bill, Rose said, “That may be true.”

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.