It’s ‘Me First’ for Legislators Come Budget Time

May 25, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The Nerve

 

 

 

How bad is South Carolina’s budget crisis? Let’s let the state’s legislative leaders describe the situation in their own words:

  • Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell told one newspaper, “The General Assembly is facing what I call the hard music. Some of these non-core functions have got to go.”
  • Hugh Leatherman, the Senate Finance chairman, told another publication he has not seen a worse budget in his 30-plus years in the State House.
  • House Speaker Bobby Harrell said, “During these difficult budget times, government must cut costs and find new ways to operate more efficiently.”

So, just how big a bullet did the General Assembly bite when it came time to allocate funds for their own chambers for the upcoming year? Not a very big one at all. In fact, both the House and Senate are recommending substantial increases to their respective operating budgets.This, despite the fact that the general fund budget has been cut by more than $2 billion over the past two years because of falling tax collections related to the economic downturn. In addition, the budget situation is expected to only worsen.

To its credit, back in March the House originally recommended cutting its own administrative operating budget by nearly $2.4 million and the Senate’s budget by $312,000 for fiscal year 2010-11.

The Senate, though, responded by increasing its operating budget for the upcoming year by a staggering $4.1 million over the current year while cutting the House’s budget the same amount recommended by the House itself, to $9.6 million.

The House, though, apparently unhappy it was going to get hit by such a sizable cut while its counterpart was giving itself a big raise, then came back and recommended its own budget instead be increased $1.1 million. That represented a $3.5 million increase over the amount it first proposed for itself for the upcoming fiscal year.

A large part of the Senate increase would be in unclassified positions, according to the General Appropriations Bill passed by the Senate. A year ago, the Senate allocated more than $3.73 million for that category, but wants to designate $7 million to unclassified positions in the coming fiscal year.

The House’s big increase comes in the area of unclassified positions, as well, as it wants to allocate an extra $1.5 million to that category for the coming year.

But how exactly the extra money would be spent is unclear. Budget documents, for example, show no proposed increase in Senate or House staff for next fiscal year, so it’s possible a large share of the money would instead go toward salaries.

Of the two bodies, the Senate has more higher-paid staff, according to the state salary database. The salaries of the top 10 Senate staffers average nearly $112,000 a year as of last August, the most current data available.

Senate clerk Jeff Gossett led the way at $148,511; while Michael Shealy, budget director for the Finance Committee; John Hazzard, counsel to McConnell; and Michael Hitchcock, assistant director of Senate research, all make more than $130,000.

But things aren’t too bad in the House, either. The average salary of the top 10 paid House staffers was more than $94,000. House clerk Charles Reid earned the most, at $144,922 annually.

Overall, an analysis by The Nerve found 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 salaries for its 35 highest-earning employees.

Neither McConnell, R-Charleston, nor Harrell, R-Charleston, could be reached for comment, but McConnell defended his chamber’s proposed increase during a recent budget debate on the Senate floor, contending that the legislative branch is a “core function of government.”

The Senate’s proposed increase would go to make up depleted reserves used for basic services. It would also be used to set aside money for anticipated costs related to recommended repairs at the Gressette Building, where senators’ offices are located, and redrawing of legislative district lines as a result of the latest U.S. Census, McConnell said, adding, “There is no fat in this budget.”

There are some lawmakers who have at least attempted to pare back the proposed increases. Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, offered a budget proviso that would have cut the Senate’s proposed hike by 50 percent and allocated about $1.95 million of the savings among the state Judicial Department, Education Department and the Department of Public Safety.

“Frankly, I’m going to have trouble going home to the crowd … of parents of disabled children and to the auditorium filled with parents, people in the PTA and teachers whose budgets are being cut, and just trying to justify with them why the state Senate (budget) is going up while everybody else is being cut,” Rose said from the floor at the time. “I figure the Senate will just have to learn to do with some cut just like everybody else.”

McConnell made a motion to table Rose’s proposed proviso, and senators voted 33-7 to do so.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022, ext. 110, or at kdietrich@scpolicycouncil.com.