Budget Secrecy Is Tradition at S.C. Legislature

January 11, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveAs the S.C. General Assembly begins its 119th legislative session this week, the two chambers are maintaining a tradition of secrecy about their own operating budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.

The Nerve on Dec. 6 submitted requests under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act to House Clerk Charles Reid and Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett for their proposed chamber budgets for next fiscal year, which starts July 1.

In a reply letter dated Jan. 5, Reid said, “There are no records in response to your request.”

To date, Gossett has not responded to The Nerve’s FOIA request, though he replied in writing within the 15-business-day deadline under state law on another budget-related matter.

Other state agencies’ proposed budgets for fiscal year 2011-12 have been available publicly for at least three months.

The Nerve previously detailed how the Senate last session increased its operating budget for this fiscal year by nearly $4 million, or 46 percent, to about $12.3 million; and also handed out double-digit pay raises to seven Senate staffers at the start of the fiscal year.

The House’s ratified operating budget for this fiscal year increased by about $1.5 million, or about 9 percent, to $17.6 million.

In addition to the approximate $4 million increase for operations, the Senate received $1 million for this fiscal year for reapportionment, or the redrawing of legislative district lines as the result of the 2010 U.S. Census.

The Senate’s total $13.3 million budget is its biggest ratified budget in at least 12 years, The Nerve found in an earlier review.

The state’s ratified general fund budget, however, was slashed by nearly $600 million, or about 10.5 percent, to about $5.1 billion for the start of this fiscal year.

Lawmakers are facing a projected budget hole of about $830 million for next fiscal year, mainly because of a loss of federal stimulus dollars. The state’s total budget for this fiscal year, which includes federal and other funds, is about $21.1 billion.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, declined to comment for this story. Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston; House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston; and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, did not respond to written and phone messages last week from The Nerve.

No proposed fiscal year 2011-12 operating budget for the House or Senate was submitted to the Office of State Budget, S.C. Budget and Control Board spokesman Delbert Singleton told The Nerve last week. The OSB is a Budget and Control Board division that plays a key role in helping lawmakers draft the state’s spending plan.

The Legislature traditionally has not submitted its proposed operating budgets to OSB, according to Singleton.

“While the House and Senate play an integral role in preparing the annual state budget during the legislative process, they are not required and do not submit budget plans to the Office of State Budget,” Singleton said in a written response. “The House and Senate comprise the legislative branch of state government, separate and distinct from the executive branch and state agencies, bureaus, offices, departments, institutions, commissions, etc.”

The OSB’s website (www.budget.sc.gov/OSB-index.phtm) lists 102 state departments, boards, commissions and university branches under its “Current Budget Plans” link. But the House and Senate links read only, “This agency has not submitted a budget plan for FY 2011-12.”

In contrast, the state’s third branch of government – the S.C. Judicial Department – has submitted its proposed 2011-12 budget to OSB.

Singleton said the Office of State Budget prepares a budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year “in accordance with the Governor’s Office instructions, “ and that the Governor’s Office sets the deadline, with input from OSB, for agencies to submit their proposed budgets. The deadline for submitting proposed fiscal year 2011-12 budgets was Sept. 3, according to OSB documents.

In recent years, Gov. Mark Sanford has worked on preparing his executive budget from October through December, with delivery to the General Assembly typically in early or mid-January, Singleton said. Sanford last week publicly released his proposed budget for next fiscal year. Gov.-elect Nikki Haley assumes office Wednesday.

In his proposal, Sanford recommended that the fiscal 2011-12 operating budgets for the House and Senate be reduced to fiscal year 2009-10 levels. The ratified budgets for the 46-member Senate and 124-member House in 2009-10 were $8.4 million and $16.1 million, respectively.

“It is not right that the (House and Senate) received a base increase to their budget when other agencies have experienced up to 50 percent cuts to their base budgets,” Sanford wrote.

Sanford spokesman Barton Swaim told The Nerve last week that the House and Senate in past years have not submitted their proposed budgets to the Governor’s Office.

In defending the Senate’s approximate $4 million operating budget increase or this fiscal year, McConnell told his Senate colleagues on the Senate floor in April that the legislative branch is a “core function of government.” He also said extra money was needed for the Senate for reapportionment and proposed repairs to the Gressette Building housing senators’ offices.

McConnell at that time did not mention pay raises for Senate staffers. The Nerve reported in November that at the beginning of the budget year on July 1, seven Senate staffers had received double-digit raises, including one who received a 22 percent hike.

The Nerve’s review also found that all Senate staffers whose salaries exceed $50,000 were given raises in each of the past two fiscal years. One of the staffers who received an aggregate 30 percent raise during the period is counsel to Gossett, who earns $148,500 annually and is Senate’s highest-paid and highest-ranking administrator.

Ironically, the Senate took a week of furlough during last year’s legislative session to save money, and McConnell in an October letter announced that all Senate employees would be furloughed for eight days this fiscal year, noting that the estimated $500,000 repair costs to the Gressette Building “adds an additional burden on already tight Senate budget.”

Yet the Senate ended last fiscal year with $4.5 million more in general fund revenues and nearly $2.3 million more in operating expenses than what was budgeted initially for the chamber, The Nerve reported in November, citing a fiscal year-end general fund report by S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom.

With a transfer of nearly $5.3 million in unspent revenues, the Senate ended last fiscal year with a listed appropriation of nearly $13 million, an increase of about 54 percent from its initial ratified budget.

Gossett, McConnell and Leatherman did not respond then to The Nerve’s request for an explanation about the funding and expenditure increase. The Nerve on Dec. 6 submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to Gossett seeking records that would detail the reasons for and sources of the hike in revenues and expenses.

Gossett in a written response on Dec. 17 cited a state budget proviso giving the Senate the authority to transfer unspent funds from previous fiscal years, but gave no further explanation. He referred The Nerve to the comptroller general’s website for details on Senate expenditures.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.