House Chamber’s Fiscal 2014 Spending Plan Still Secret

December 10, 2012

Investigative Reports

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Top SecretS.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell likes to openly brag about how his 124-member chamber initiates and pushes through what he touts as reform legislation.

But when it comes to the chamber’s own spending plans, Harrell and other House leaders continue to operate behind a wall of secrecy.

State law requires agencies to submit their proposed budgets for the upcoming fiscal year to the governor – in recent years by way of the Office of State Budget – by Nov. 1. Most state agencies comply with the law.

But not the House of Representatives.

“This agency has not submitted a Budget Plan for FY 2013-14,” according to a statement posted on the Office of State Budget’s website.

Until September, the 46-member Senate had been ignoring the law as well for years, as The Nerve has previously pointed out.

The Nerve last week attempted to find out details of the House’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget, but neither Harrell, R-Charleston, nor House Clerk Charles Reid – the chamber’s top-paid administrator who makes $164,196 annually – responded to written messages.

The House and Senate in recent years have bypassed the normal budget process when it comes to their respective chamber budgets, usually waiting until well after the legislative session starts in January before publicly releasing their proposed spending plans for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

In fact, most taxpayers haven’t gotten a first look at the chambers’ proposed spending plans until the House Ways and Means Committee’s version of the state budget – the first step in the legislative budget process – has been posted on the General Assembly’s website – typically in early March.

No one representing the House or Senate in recent years has appeared before the Ways and Means or Senate Finance committees to publicly discuss their respective chamber’s budget priorities for the upcoming fiscal year.

Instead, those talks have been held behind closed doors, with each chamber accepting the other’s proposed spending plans without objection, The Nerve has previously reported.

That has allowed the chambers to slip in relatively large, unexamined budget increases for themselves. For example, the Senate chamber received a nearly $5 million hike in fiscal 2011, which wasn’t first publicly proposed until more than three months after the Legislature was in session in 2010.

Part of that increase covered pay raises for Senate staffers, despite claims by chamber leaders that the money was needed for other pressing concerns, The Nerve reported in 2010.

On the last day of the regular legislative session in 2011, the House quietly received an approximately $2.3 million budget hike, part of which was used last fiscal year to cover pay hikes ranging from 5 percent  to 55 percent for Reid and 31 other House staffers, The Nerve recently reported.

And, on top of that, another last-minute, $2.5 million appropriation was slipped into the House chamber’s budget at the end of this year’s legislative session. Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville and chairman of the House Operations and Management Committee, earlier said he was informed by House staff that money was needed to fix electrical problems in the chamber’s sound and voting-board systems, though a longtime professional installer told The Nerve that the problems were fixed in the spring.

Neither Reid nor Harrell responded last week to questions from The Nerve about specifics of $2.5 million appropriation.

The House’s ratified budget for this fiscal year is nearly $21.3 million, according to Office of State Budget records. The Senate’s ratified fiscal 2013 budget is $12.8 million, OSB records show, though according to documents filed by the chamber’s main administrator, Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett, the proposed fiscal 2014 appropriation for the chamber would be slightly more than $13.2 million – the same amount as this fiscal year’s “actual” budget.

Of the $413,698 difference between the ratified and “actual” budgets for this fiscal year, $258,228 will go toward Senate staff pay raises, records show – presumably part of the overall 3 percent raise approved earlier this year by the Legislature for most state workers. Gossett did not respond last week to written questions from The Nerve seeking specifics about the gap.

Gossett’s salary as of Sept. 1 was $157,555, according to a salary database maintained by The Statenewspaper.

What neither Senate nor House leaders will acknowledge publicly are the relatively large reserves their respective chambers have at their disposal. The House carried over more than $9.7 million into this fiscal year, while the Senate carried over nearly $5.3 million, according to records from state Comptroller General’s Office.

Gossett did not respond last week to The Nerve’s questions about his chamber’s surplus.

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