Bill To Shorten Legislative Sessions Receives House Panel Approval

January 25, 2013

Investigative Reports

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SC StatehouseA House Judiciary subcommittee Thursday supported a plan by Majority Leader Bruce Bannister that would allow voters to decide if they want to shorten the length of legislative sessions by at least a month.

If enacted by lawmakers, the joint resolution (H. 3340) by the Greenville Republican, who serves as the House Judiciary Constitutional Laws Subcommittee chairman, would change the ending date of regular sessions to the first Thursday in May from the first Thursday in June.

The proposal also would allow legislative committees to begin their work in January, but House and Senate floor sessions would not start until the second Tuesday in February rather than the second Tuesday in January.

The resolution calls for an amendment to the S.C. Constitution, which would have to be approved by a two-thirds vote of each chamber and a majority of voters in a general statewide election.

The General Assembly usually meets Tuesdays through Thursdays during regular session weeks. If Bannister’s proposal becomes law, taxpayers could save as much as $267,240 in daily “subsistence” payments alone during the shortened ending period, assuming there were 12 fewer session days and all 170 members accepted the payments.

That total savings, however, likely would be reduced by the number of days when lawmakers typically return to Columbia after regular session to take up conference committee reports and the governor’s vetoes.

Some comic relief unfolded during Thursday’s hearing when Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Newberry, questioned shortening legislative sessions because lawmakers get their best budget projections from the Office of State Budget in May.

“We could do what Kentucky does and meet every two years for 60 days or every 60 years for two days,” McLeod said sarcastically. “We need to think about what needs to be done to run the state in a sound economic manner.”

When McLeod questioned Bannister about which budget projections are more trustworthy, May or earlier, Bannister responded, “Neither.”

“It seems to me we usually do things based on a deadline,” Bannister said. “If we say the deadline is in July, I suspect we won’t have a budget until the first week of July.”

The subcommittee had a couple of members absent, but House Judiciary Committee Chairman Greg Delleney, R-Chester, and Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, also a Judiciary Committee member, filled spots to conduct subcommittee business.

McLeod cast the only vote against H. 3340. Subcommittee member Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, joined the committee later.

When one considers lawmakers’ costs to taxpayers, shortening the session likely would save money.

The Nerve in 2010 first documented those costs. Besides their base annual salaries of $10,400, which legislators often contend is their only source of public income, they also can receive:

  • In-district expense payments of up to $12,000 annually, even while, as The Nerve reported earlier, state law requires counties to fund local legislative delegation offices;
  • Daily $131 “subsistence” payments for hotels and meals while on official legislative business, whether in or out of session;
  • Per-diem payments of $35 for legislative meetings on non-session days; and
  • Mileage reimbursements of at least 44.5 cents per allowed mile for House members and 50 cents per allowed mile for senators , which, as with subsistence payments, are tied to federal rates.

The Nerve has previously reported that Midlands lawmakers have accepted “subsistence” payments even though they live relatively close to the State House.

South Carolina’s typical 21-week annual session is the second longest in the Southeast and 14th longest in the country, according to a 2010 study by the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization ofThe Nerve.

Measured in terms of months, the Palmetto State has the longest session in the Southeast, tying with Tennessee, the same study found.

Most states have less than 100 legislative days, with 40 in Georgia and 90 in Tennessee, for example, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ website. Texas, Nevada, Montana and North Dakota have legislatures that meet every other year.

And if S.C. lawmakers wanted to save more taxpayer dollars, they could get rid of the moments of legislative time dedicated to congratulating citizens, high school athletic teams and others, which amounts to political campaigning on taxpayer time.

The Nerve last year uncovered eight wasted hours on congratulatory resolutions and other frivolous matters in just a two-week period.

That pattern hasn’t changed so far this legislative session.

Olson can be reached at (803) 254-4411 or curt@thenerve.org. He is on Twitter @thenerve_curt and @olson_curt.