Higher Ed Spending Transparency Bill Likely Dead – Again

May 17, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveLegislation requiring South Carolina’s state-supported colleges and universities to post their spending online looks like it might die in the General Assembly this year.

The idea is headed toward a dead end – again – despite the fact that it enjoys bipartisan support, and even as both the House and Senate have passed different higher education spending transparency bills.

The meat grinder of the legislative process, and a separate issue that is a priority for the schools, would seem to be the culprits holding things up.

“Time constraints,” Sen. John Courson, R-Richland and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, says in reference to the Legislature’s scheduled adjournment on June 2.

Lawmakers tentatively plan to reconvene on June 14 to deal with any budget vetoes, redistricting and certain other matters. But the scope of business for that session is limited and in all likelihood would preclude legislators from taking up a bill at that point that has not passed both chambers in some form.

Thus, Courson says of passing mandatory online university check registers, “It may be next year.”

But the clock isn’t the only roadblock.

Last year, state-supported schools opposed spending transparency legislation and helped prevent it from becoming law, courtesy of their taxpayer-funded lobbyists.

This year, Courson and other legislators say the schools are being more cooperative on the matter, but with a catch: Colleges and universities want a bill passed in tandem that would streamline the approval process for their development projects.

“I think everybody came to the conclusion that these bills would travel together or they won’t travel,” Courson says.

If so, one could fairly conclude that there is a lack of support in the Legislature for passing a clean higher education spending transparency bill – much lip service to that end notwithstanding.

Last week, a panel of the Senate Finance Committee took up the college construction streamlining measure, H. 3410, amended it to include spending transparency and approved the bill and sent it to the full Finance committee.

Courson is chairman of the subcommittee.

The House unanimously passed the legislation in March. But with only nine legislative days remaining in the regular session, including today, it would take a heavy lift to get it through the Senate before time runs out.

Among other pressing issues in the chamber, senators are still deliberating over a budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year, a debate that began three weeks ago.

All of this adds up to a high probability that it will be another year or longer before South Carolina’s publicly supported colleges and universities, which receive tens of millions of state and federal tax dollars every year, are required to disclose online how they spend that money.

At least two universities, Clemson and Coastal Carolina, already have started doing so, although they did not get on board the transparency train until lawmakers started pushing legislation to that effect.

The University of South Carolina plans to join the list at the beginning of the new fiscal year on July 1, according to USC spokeswoman Margaret Lamb.

“The site will go live on July 1 – but no data will be there until the month of July ends and is released,” Lamb said in an email to The Nerve. “We’re expecting each month to post on or about the 20th of the month.”

Before the legislative session began in January, Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, and other leaders of the majority House Republican Caucus touted the “South Carolina Higher Education Transparency Act of 2011” with much fanfare as a priority for this year.

“Spending accountability is a major issue, especially given these tight budget conditions,” Harrell said during a news conference in which the caucus leaders unveiled their agenda for this session.

The House unanimously passed the Harrell-sponsored college spending transparency bill, H. 3185, less than a month into the session.

It would apply to “all funds expended each month” by public institutions along with the monthly statements for their state-issued credit cards.

When the House bill got to the Senate, Courson’s Education Committee endorsed it and reported it out for consideration by the full chamber.

That was in late February. Since then, however, Courson and Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, have been blocking the bill.

Asked why he is contesting it, Courson cited the explanation of linking it to the legislation to streamline the approval process for college construction projects. “For either to pass, in my opinion, both of them will have to pass,” he said.

The Senate, meanwhile, unanimously passed its own online university check register bill, S. 172, in early February and sent it to the House, where it was assigned to the Ways and Means Committee.

Nothing has happened on that bill since then. Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, is the lead sponsor of it.

State Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom launched a movement for online government spending transparency in South Carolina a few years ago.

Eckstrom began with state agencies and since then has successfully pushed to include federal dollars in South Carolina as well as spending by many, though not all, local governments and school districts.

Until recently, though, colleges and universities have resisted the effort.

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