Lawmaker Calls on Lawmakers to Follow Law

December 9, 2014

Inside Insight

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CRAZY, RIGHT?

Last Friday night at a meeting of the Anderson County legislative delegation, freshman House member Jonathon Hill introduced two resolutions calling on the legislature to – uh – follow the law.

The first resolution concerned the state’s local government fund. By law, state budget-writers are to allocate 4.5 percent of the previous year’s revenue to local governments as payment for those governments carrying out state services. For six years, however, state lawmakers have reduced the amount by means of one-year provisos.

Over in Spartanburg County, Senator Shane Martin was so irate about it that he introduced a strident resolution chastising budget writers for perpetuating this “unlawful” reallocation. Sen. Martin all but accused House and Senate appropriations committees of theft. In the end a milder version of the resolution was adopted, since Sen. Harvey Peeler wasn’t prepared to anger Senate Finance chairman Hugh Leatherman (“I know him [Leatherman] as well as anyone else,” Peeler remarked, “and this will do more harm than good”).

But back to Anderson County.

Rep. Hill’s other resolution – to my mind the more interesting one – called on the legislature to begin following the state’s budget law. In this case, lawmakers don’t pass one-year provisos to circumvent the law; they just ignore it.

State law requires the House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee to hold “joint open hearings” on the governor’s budget. For many years, the South Carolina governors didn’t even write a full executive spending plan, so accustomed had they become to allowing the legislature to run state government by itself. Gov. Sanford brought back the practice in 2003, and an executive budget has been published at the beginning of every legislative session since then – and promptly ignored by state lawmakers.

As far as anyone knows, House and Senate appropriations committees haven’t even discussed meeting jointly.

The law is there for a reason. When a state’s chief executive submits the first draft of the budget – as is done in most other states – the public and media can get a general idea of what the final spending plan can and should look like: how much money is there, which programs should be cut or expanded, and so on. In South Carolina, by contrast, the budget begins life in a byzantine array of House subcommittees and committees that are literally impossible to follow even by experienced observers – and the whole process begins again once the budget crosses over to the Senate. The end result? No one has any firm idea what’s in the state budget until it hits the Senate floor in the early spring, and by that time it’s practically impossible for the public to affect the outcome.

Hence the importance of a law some legislators dismiss as “antiquated.” (Curiously, though, the new Speaker of the House, Jay Lucas, once wrote a letter to House Ways and Means chairman Brian White asking why the committee consistently ignores the law.)

Perhaps the most important reason why the legislature should follow the budget law – and why Rep. Hill introduced his resolution at last week’s delegation meeting – is a more straightforward one: It’s the law. And lawmakers should follow the law.

Hill’s resolution calls on “the House and Senate budgeting committee chairmen [to] implement the budget process outlined in Title 11, Chapter 11 of the South Carolina Code of Laws for joint consideration of the Governor’s budget in the 121st Legislative Session.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the delegation took both of Rep. Hill’s resolutions “under advisement,” a fancy way of saying they chose to ignore the issue.

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