Budget Board Battle Royale: The Guv’s Veto

July 1, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveYou want Budget and Control Board efficiencies? You’ve got Budget and Control Board efficiencies.

But – one little detail here – you’re the one who has to make it happen.

In a nutshell, that’s what the two legislative members of the S.C. Budget and Control Board told the chairman of the board, Gov. Mark Sanford, in a pointed discussion the board engaged in during a meeting Wednesday.

The conversation resulted from Sanford vetoing all of the Budget and Control Board’s allocation from the state’s general fund in the 2010-11 fiscal year – about $25.2 million.

The new budget year begins today.

Indeed, it is not just a new day at the Budget and Control Board literally – but figuratively, as well.

In the General Assembly, the House recently sustained Sanford’s veto of the Budget and Control Board’s general fund appropriation for this year. To override a veto, both the House and Senate must vote against it by a two-thirds margin.

In a message explaining his veto, Sanford said, “We believe that using available funds and implementing cost-cutting measures will sustain this agency easily over the next fiscal year.”

As part of those available funds, the governor cited “approximately $60 million in unrestricted accounts.”

The $25.2 million was earmarked for the Budget and Control Board’s operating costs this year. The cutting of that money sent the board scrambling to try to figure out a way to cope with a new reality.

For Sanford, it’s been a long time coming. He has consistently fought to reform or outright abolish the Budget and Control Board, arguing that it is an inefficient, unaccountable and unconstitutional mingling of the executive and legislative branches of state government.

The board consists of five members: the governor, the comptroller general and the treasurer from the executive branch; and the chairmen of the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee from the legislative branch.

The board exercises broad powers over state spending. It also carries out a vast array of administrative functions through a bureaucratic apparatus overseeing an alphabet soup of divisions and operations.

Those include the Office of State Budget and the Board of Economic Advisors. That board is charged with projecting state revenue collections, and its forecasts must be followed.

No other state has an equivalent to the Budget and Control Board.

In its place, Sanford has advocated for the creation of a Department of Administration with a director who would serve in the governor’s Cabinet.

In the meeting, the Budget and Control Board unanimously approved a resolution giving the governor and the board’s administrative director, Frank Fusco, “the authority to determine which programs are critical to the board’s function and develop a plan to fund these programs from the $60 million in unrestricted accounts described in the governor’s veto message.”

Translation: Governor, you said the board could make it by using money it controls and tightening its belt, so show us how it’s done.

Ways and Means Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, proposed the resolution. It was the only time Cooper piped up to say anything during the meeting.

With no small hint of sarcasm, Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, characterized the resolution as an opportunity for Sanford to demonstrate how efficient government can be.

Said Sanford, “I get the politics of this.” He elaborated that the measure allows Cooper and Leatherman to say their hands are clean when the ax falls.

Said Leatherman as the veto discussion was wrapping up, “Governor, thank you for your willingness to face this head on.”

The veto was not on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting, which was rescheduled three times after Sanford nixed the Budget and Control Board’s operating funding for this year.

Leatherman proposed adding the topic to the agenda.

Even for a fly on the wall, however, it was difficult to observe the goings-on at the meeting.

It was held at the Wade Hampton Building on the grounds of the State House in a conference room woefully undersized for a large contingent that was on hand. The attendees numbered several dozen, representing state agencies, colleges and universities, the media and other entities.

They packed into the place like standing sardines and flowed into a hallway leading to the room, as all but a few folding chairs ringing the room were reserved for government staffers.

When people entering the room observed the crowded situation, they made comments under their breath like “ridiculous” and “demeaning.”

The Nerve asked some of them about the matter.

David Owen, construction and property manager for the S.C. Forestry Commission, said he has been attending Budget and Control Board meetings for about five years and it’s always like that.

“It’s just really hard,” Owen said. “If you do get questions you have to fight your way to the front to answer them.”

Curtis Loftis, the Republican nominee for treasurer, also was on hand. “In the interest of transparency we need a much larger room – seats for everybody,” Loftis said.

He said he would begin advocating for a more accommodating meeting space “the day of” taking office.

In a move aimed at opening up Budget and Control Board meetings to the public, Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom made arrangements with South Carolina Educational Television to have Wednesday’s meeting and future gatherings of the board streamed live on the Internet.

“The Budget and Control Board is a powerful entity with tremendous influence over state spending,” Eckstrom said in a letter explaining the idea to his colleagues on the board, “yet most people probably don’t know what goes on in these meetings – or what the Budget and Control Board even does.”

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@scpolicycouncil.com.