Bills Target Legislature’s Lopsided Power

January 4, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveGov. Mark Sanford has pushed to restructure state government for the duration of his administration. But such efforts began long before Sanford took office, and it looks like they will continue well after he leaves office.

At least three restructuring bills have been prefiled for a new legislative session set to begin next week, and one of the measures has bipartisan support.

Advocates of restructuring contend that it would create efficiencies and cost savings.

Supporters also argue that restructuring is essential to help rebalance power among the three branches of state government.

These reformers hold that the scales of authority and oversight have been weighted against the executive and judicial branches in favor of the Legislature for decades, both constitutionally and statutorily.

Perhaps the biggest example of how the executive branch is subservient to the legislative branch can be seen in the state Budget and Control Board. Both an agency and a board, it is a discordant hybrid of the executive and legislative branches that is unique to South Carolina.

The board consists of three constitutional officers elected statewide, including the governor as chairman, and two of the most power legislators – the chairmen of the budget-writing Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees.

In another example of the Legislature treading on executive branch functions, the power to appoint hundreds of members to executive boards and commissions rests with the General Assembly.

“We need to give the governor the power to be governor,” says Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston and chief sponsor of one of the three restructuring bills, S. 134.

Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, puts it more bluntly. “The small little cabal of senior legislators and those they influence, they don’t want to give up any power,” says Rose, who is co-sponsoring Campsen’s bill.

Bringing bipartisanship to the reform table, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, is sponsoring one of the other two bills, S. 261. Campsen and Rose both have signed onto the Sheheen measure.

The three senators also are backing legislation to create an inspector general dedicated to rooting out waste, fraud and abuse in state government.

“That’s very, very important for efficiency in government,” Campsen says.

All three restructuring bills would create a Department of Administration. The department would be an agency of the governor’s cabinet, with a director whom the governor would appoint with legislative confirmation.

Many functions of the Governor’s Office and the Budget and Control Board would be transferred to the new administrative department.

Sanford has long championed creation of such an agency.

“This is an idea the governor has advocated for over the past several years,” Sanford spokesman Ben Fox said in an e-mail to The Nerve, “and while this pre-filing is an encouraging step, the verdict is out on whether this latest effort will lead to true restructuring or merely fig-leaf reform given the various iterations and debate the bill is sure to engender.”

The Legislature is scheduled to reconvene next Tuesday.

The four-year terms of Gov.-elect Nikki Haley and the state’s eight other constitutional officers will begin the following day.

In what has become a pattern with the media and even some state officials, Haley’s spokesman, Rob Godfrey, did not respond to an e-mail and a phone message from The Nerve seeking Haley’s views on the Campsen-Rose bill and restructuring in general.

The Campsen-Rose bill, named the “South Carolina Restructuring Act of 2011,” and Sheheen’s restructuring legislation both call for the same operations to be housed in a Department of Administration. Those functions include the following Budget and Control Board components:

  • Division of General Services, which encompasses running and maintaining state buildings and managing the state’s vehicle fleet, among other things;
  • Office of Human Resources;
  • Office of Research and Statistics; and
  • State Energy Office.

“We’re the only state in the nation with a Budget and Control Board and we have a lot of the executive branch functions housed in the Budget and Control Board,” Campsen says.

The parts of the Governor’s Office that would be moved into the Department of Administration include most divisions of the Office of Executive Policy and Programs, such as the offices of Economic Opportunity, Veterans Affairs, and Victims Assistance and the Development Disabilities Council.

The Campsen-Rose-Sheheen bills have been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The chairman of that committee is Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston and president pro tempore of the Senate.

McConnell will have a key hand in the destiny of the restructuring bills, and, for that matter, any reform proposal in the upcoming legislative session.

As judiciary chairman, he heads a crucial committee with far-reaching jurisdiction over legal and constitutional issues. And as president pro tempore, McConnell presides over the Senate the vast majority of the time the chamber is in session.

Campsen and Rose say the aim of their legislation is to make the three branches of state government co-equal. “That’s the way the founders wanted it,” Campsen says.

He describes the inspector general provision of his bill as “one of the better parts of” it.

The Legislature, Campsen notes, has a professional investigative arm in the form of the Legislative Audit Council to ferret out inefficiency and impropriety. But the governor lacks such a capacity, he says. “And the governor needs something like that, and they clearly would pay for themselves many times over.”

Rose agrees.

But whereas the bill he has teamed with Campsen to advocate would limit an inspector general’s purview to the executive branch, Rose says he favors no such restrictions, and for a simple reason. “There needs to be a system of checks and balances,” Rose says.

Jurisdiction is indeed an issue in this regard.

Five legislators must formally ask the Audit Council to conduct an investigation before it will consider doing so. In addition, the House speaker or the Senate president pro tempore individually can seek a probe by the Audit Council.

Because of that arrangement, Audit Council director Tom Bardin told The Nerve in an e-mail, “Since it could be construed as a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest, the Audit Council would most likely turn down a legislative request to audit a legislative agency or legislative function, such as management of the House Judiciary Committee.”

Says Rose of the Audit Council, “All it does is investigate the executive branch. The inspector general needs to investigate waste, fraud and abuse by anyone.”

The money-saving potential of an inspector general could bode well for the proposal to create one, especially this year.

Hundreds of millions of federal Recovery Act dollars included in this year’s state budget will not be available in the new fiscal year that begins July 1. That has created a projected shortfall of $700 million to $1 billion in the 2011-12 budget before lawmakers even begin drafting it.

Rose says the deficit could work both for and against reform in the minds of legislative leaders.

“I’m not saying they won’t do anything, but the budget will crowd out a lot of these issues,” he says. “The budget will also give legislators an excuse to crowd out what they don’t want to pass anyway.”

At the same time, the senator says, “The shortage of money forces paradigm shifts, forces change.”

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