How the S.C. Senate Gave Itself a $4 Million Raise

June 22, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveIn a rare move, S.C. Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett took to the podium on the Senate floor.

“I am sorry to say it, and I’m sorry to have to stand before you today, but that is where the Senate is,” a somber-looking Gossett told senators Thursday during their debate over Gov. Mark Sanford’s budget vetoes. “The Senate simply cannot function at a level that we are accustomed to if this veto stands.”

Gossett – the Senate’s highest-paid employee with an annual salary of $148,511 – warned senators of dire consequences if they didn’t override Sanford’s veto of $3 million in the proposed $12.3 million general fund budget for the Senate chamber for next fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Sanford also vetoed an additional $1 million in projected extra state tax collections, earmarked in separate budget proviso, for the Senate for reapportionment, or the redrawing of legislative district lines resulting from this year’s U.S. Census.

The additional $4 million would give the Senate its biggest ratified budget – $13.3 million – in at least the past 12 years, according to records reviewed by The Nerve.  The 46-member chamber was seeking a 46-percent increase in its base general fund budget compared to this fiscal year’s ratified general fund budget of $8.4 million.

But to get the extra money, the Senate would have to override Sanford’s vetoes.  If they didn’t override veto of the $3 million portion , Gossett told senators he would have to:

  • Eliminate positions and  force six-month furloughs for about 70 of 100 Senate staffers, with the remaining “core” staff to take 20 to 25 furlough days;
  • Eliminate the $1,000-per-month in-district expense allowance for each senator, saving $552,000 a year;
  • Eliminate the chamber’s student page and law clerk program, noting that several senators had participated in the program in their younger days.

Pointing out that the Senate had covered $5 million in budget cuts over the past two years by tapping rainy-day funds, Gossett said, “Quite frankly, the $3 million … that the governor wishes removed from our budget cannot be absorbed under those same circumstances.”

As for the possibility of furloughing a majority of the staff, Gossett said, “The reality of that is that those people cannot afford to take six months off.”

Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, wasn’t persuaded by Gossett’s pitch.

“With all due respect, I thought what we just heard is inappropriate because I think it was a personal appeal,” Massey said from the floor.

Still, Massey acknowledged it would be a “tough” decision to sustain the governor’s veto, noting that Senate staffers who were in the chamber at the time “are looking at us as we are about to decide whether they have jobs or not.”

In the end, though, Massey said many other state employees “who have been furloughed or lost their jobs also have personal stories.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who got his colleagues’ permission to allow Gossett to address the chamber, said the Senate deserved the extra $3 million, contending that the House had previously received a $7 million budget hike.

“The Senate last year was really frugal with taxpayers’ money,” Leatherman said.

Leatherman said the furlough or loss of Senate staff would particularly hurt Massey and other senators who had only one staffer in their office, telling Massey, “How in the world could you … fulfill your senatorial duties with phone calls coming in, mail coming in?”

Also addressing Massey, Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, initially said he was uncomfortable voting on the $3 million increase.

“This is a tough, tough vote for any of those of us who are in a conservative district, and everybody is telling us we need to sustain every one of the governor’s vetoes,” Cromer said. “This could be a political nightmare for some of us.”

But despite that, Cromer told his colleagues that he planned to vote to override Sanford’s veto, saying, “It’s the right thing to do.”

Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, didn’t believe, however, that overriding the veto would help taxpayers, pointing out that cutting funds for the parents of disabled children or the state’s educational system while increasing the Senate’s own budget would “jeopardize our credibility.”

“Besides it looking bad, don’t you think people won’t respect us and have confidence in us as a leader if they perceive that we’re willing to cut them and not us?” Rose said to Massey.

That line of reasoning didn’t win over most senators, however, as they voted 33-11 to override Sanford’s veto.  A short time later, they voted 40-2 to override Sanford’s veto of the $1 million in reapportionment money – after moving it up the voting list.

Massey and Rose were among the 11 senators who voted to sustain Sanford’s veto of the $3 million, while Leatherman and Cromer were among the 33 who voted to override it.  Only Sens. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, and Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, voted to sustain Sanford’s veto of the other $1 million.

To get a breakdown of the Senate votes, check out the Senate Journal here:http://www.scstatehouse.gov/sess118_2009-2010/sj10/20100617.htm

In his veto message, Sanford said he was nixing the $3 million because “in a year when nearly every other state agency is taking a budget cut, it makes no sense to increase the budget for the Legislature.”

The Nerve reported in February that the Senate will spend slightly more than $4 million in $50,000-plus salaries for 56 staffers this fiscal year, while the 124-member House will spend $2.4 million in $50,000-plus salaries for its 35 highest-earning employees. The average top salaries in the Senate and House are $72,439 and $69,760, respectively.

Leatherman and Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, did not respond to written questions from The Nerve last week seeking details on how the $4 million, including the reapportionment money, would be spent.  McConnell  said on the Senate floor  in April that additional money was needed for reapportionment and estimated repairs to the Gressette Building where senators’ offices are located.

In a joint written statement printed in last Thursday’s Senate Journal, Sens. McConnell; Leatherman; Cromer;  John Courson, R-Richland;  Larry Martin, R-Pickens; Wes Hayes, R-York; and Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, contended that the Senate has been “frugal,” and that it is a “core function of government.”

Sustaining the veto of the $3 million, the senators wrote, would have “cut into the constitutionally mandated core functions of the legislative branch, crippling the efficient functioning of the Senate and effectively shut down a co-equal branch of government, upending the balance of power envisioned by the framers of our Constitution.”

The senators also said in their statement  that while their chamber’s budget has increased by about 20 percent over a six-year period, the governor’s office budget jumped by more than 50 percent during that same time.

In an interesting twist, the House last week voted to override Sanford’s vetoes on the Senate’s budget, but sustained the governor’s vetoes that cut about $1.3 million from its own proposed $17.6 million general fund budget and another $1 million earmarked to the House for reapportionment.

Still, the House’s initial ratified budget for this fiscal year of $16.1 million was $2.7 million, or 20 percent, more than the 2008-09 ratified budget ; and $4.6 million, or 40 percent, more than the amended budget for that year.

And even with Sanford’s vetoes, the House’s approximate $16.3 general fund budget for 2010-11 would be its largest ratified budget in at least 12 years, records show.

Reach Brundrett @ (803) 779-5022, ext. 106, or rick@scpolicycouncil.com.