House Speaker Pro Tem Favors Joint Budget Hearings

February 25, 2013

Investigative Reports

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BudgetUPDATE 2/28/13: Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, on Wednesday introduced a bill (H. 3647) to repeal the joint budget hearings law. The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

As the proposed fiscal 2014 state budget passed by the House Ways and Means Committee last week moves to the full House, legislators once again have ignored a longstanding state law requiring the General Assembly’s two budget-writing panels to hold joint public hearings on the annual spending plan.

But one of the House’s top officers says he supports the law.

In a Jan. 24 letter to Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, House Speaker Pro Tempore Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said that “(p)ersonally, I like the idea of starting the budget process in this manner – I think it could lead to a more efficient and transparent process.”

Section 11-11-90 of the S.C. Code of Laws says that the Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees must begin to hold joint public hearings within five days of when the proposed executive budget for the upcoming fiscal year, now prepared by the governor, is submitted to the General Assembly. The fiscal year starts July 1; the regular legislative session begins the second Tuesday in January, and by the law, the governor must submit a proposed executive budget no later than within five days of when the session starts.

The South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, last year recommended the joint budget hearings as part of its eight-point reform agenda.

The origin of the joint-hearings law dates back to 1919, record show, though lawmakers acknowledge it hasn’t been followed in decades. Under the current process, the governor first submits a proposed executive budget to the 170-member Legislature; afterward, the House Ways and Means Committee passes its budget version, followed by the full House, Senate Finance Committee and full Senate.

Any differences are resolved by a conference committee made up of members of both chambers. The final version is sent to the governor, who can approve it or issue vetoes; the vetoes can be sustained or overridden by lawmakers.

Although budget hearings in the respective chambers are open to the public, there are no joint hearings between the Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees to allow the public to see and comment on the budget as a whole. As it stands now, the budget process is largely fragmented, with Ways and Means and Senate Finance having eight and seven budget subcommittees, respectively. Different budget subcommittees within a chamber often meet at the same time, making it difficult for the public to attend all of them.

In his letter last month to White, a copy of which was obtained by The Nerve, Lucas, who isn’t a member of Ways and Means, said there are good reasons for holding the joint hearings.

“Since the law allows the joint committee to consider testimony from agency representatives about their budget requests, we could streamline the budget process and possibly have resolution to the budget much earlier than we currently do,” Lucas, who was elected the House speaker pro tem on Nov. 17, 2010, wrote. “In turn, this could allow us to achieve a repeated goal of the House Republican Caucus of shortening the length of the legislative session.”

“I know we both agree on the importance (of) creating the most public and transparent budget process possible and ensuring that all applicable laws are followed,” Lucas concluded. “I ask that you review this statute and all other governing language, and if necessary join me in calling for the existence of these meetings.”

No such meetings have been held this year, however.

White, the Ways and Means chairman since mid-2011, did not respond to three phone messages on Friday from The Nerve seeking comment on the letter.

The Nerve also reached out to other leaders on Ways and Means. A spokesperson for Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston and the committee’s first vice-chairman, said he was not immediately available Friday for comment.

Contacted Friday by The Nerve, Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens and the committee’s second vice-chairman, described the joint-hearings law as “antiquated.”

“My process would be, as with any antiquated law, to file legislation to eliminate that,” he said, adding, “There are a lot of antiquated laws on the books that I don’t feel are pertinent now.”

A Senate bill (S. 22) this year that would create a Department of Administration under the governor’s control also would have repealed the joint-hearings law, The Nerve previously reported, though that provision was dropped in the final Senate version approved last week. The bill is now before the House Judiciary Committee.

“Until you guys (the South Carolina Policy Council) came up with it (the joint-hearings recommendation), I did not know it (the joint-hearings law) even existed,” said Pitts, chairman of the Ways and Means Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Subcommittee.

Asked why he didn’t think the joint-hearings law could work in the current budget process, Pitts replied: “It’s very difficult because of the demands of legislative duties to get a group that large together. It can be done, but it would be difficult.”

Pitts said he didn’t work on his part of the proposed fiscal 2014 state budget in a vacuum, noting he met with Gov. Nikki Haley at the start of the budget process, and also was in contact with Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville and the Senate Finance Criminal Justice Subcommittee chairman.

Unlike Pitts, another Ways and Means leader, Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken and the committee’s third vice-chairman, told The Nerve on Friday that he “wouldn’t have a problem” with holding joint hearings with the Senate Finance Committee.

“When both of them can agree on it to begin with, that would save a lot of time,” said Smith, chairman of the Ways and Means Transportation and Regulatory Subcommittee. “It could help shorten the (legislative) session because the budget takes an enormous amount of time.”

Smith pointed out that even without holding the joint hearings, the House already has taken a week of furlough and plans to take two more furlough weeks around Easter while still meeting the chamber’s deadline to pass its version of the state budget.

Under the House schedule, the budget version passed by Ways and Means last week will be printed this week and delivered to all House members by next week. House floor debate on the budget is scheduled to begin the week of March 11.

The Ways and Means version lists $22.7 billion in total revenues for next fiscal year, which includes general, federal and “other” funds. But an analysis by the Policy Council found that for reasons not immediately known, the House budget-writing panel classified $1.5 billion in federal revenues in the S.C. Department of Social Services’ budget for food-stamp assistance payments as a “transfer” to an “unbudgeted” account, and didn’t include that amount in the total state budget.

Including that “unbudgeted” amount, the total fiscal 2014 budget under the Ways and Means version would be at least $24.2 billion – about $600 million more than the ratified budget for this fiscal year, according to the Policy Council’s analysis.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.

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