Lawmakers Fight to the End for Their Own Pay Raise

June 20, 2014

Investigative Reports

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Money ForestYou won’t find it in the official S.C. Senate Journal, but there initially were more “yes” than “no” votes cast by senators this week for a big pay hike for the 170-member General Assembly.

The journal shows that the Senate’s final tally on Wednesday to override Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto of the $12,000 yearly pay raise failed by 10 “yes” votes to 32 “no” votes. A two-thirds vote was needed to override the veto.

But when Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, who was the acting Senate president at the time, initially called for the vote just before 10 p.m., there were 22 “yes” votes for the pay raise to 18 “no” votes, with two senators not voting, The Nerve’s tally showed.

Apparently sensing, however, that they ultimately weren’t going to meet the two-thirds threshold when the voting was formally closed, some senators, including Setzler, quickly switched their votes from “yes” to “no,” with the two senators who didn’t vote initially voting “no” as well in the end.

Besides Setzler, 11 other senators switched their votes from “yes” to “no”: Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee; Karl Allen, D-Greenville; Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley; Creighton Coleman, D-Fairfield; Tom Corbin, R-Greenville; Mike Fair, R-Greenville; Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley; Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg; Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington; Billy O’Dell, R-Abbeville; and Danny Verdin, R-Laurens.

The two senators who didn’t vote initially but cast “no” votes in the end were Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry; and John Scott, D-Richland.

So what accounted for the mid-stream vote change?

One likely reason is that under Senate rules, the prevailing side on a vote can ask to reconsider the vote later, which is what happened Thursday afternoon – the last day of session for the Senate – when Scott called for a recount.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens and the acting Senate president, rejected Scott’s request, ruling it out of order, which officially killed the pay raise – at least for this year.

Newly elected Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, was among the 10 senators supporting the pay raise in Wednesday night’s final vote. The Nerve reported last month that Leatherman was behind the push to double lawmakers’ monthly “in-district” income to $2,000 from $1,000. The pay hike was first publicly revealed at an April 30 meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Leatherman.

If lawmakers received $24,000 yearly in “in-district” income instead of the current $12,000, the total cost increase to taxpayers would have been more than $2 million if all 170 members accepted the raise. And that’s on top of the annual $10,400 base legislative salary, which most lawmakers receive.

Had the Senate on Thursday overridden Haley’s veto, most legislators’ total annual salary would have jumped to $34,400 from $22,400 – an increase of nearly 54 percent.

In approving the pay hike last month, the Senate ignored the balanced-budget provision in the S.C. Constitution, appropriating no money for it in any budget line items, The Nerve reported then.

Haley’s veto of the pay-hike proposal, buried in a state budget proviso (91.29), would never have made it to the Senate this week for consideration had it not been for the House’s earlier 11th-hour vote on the last day of its session to override it – and only after a quick recount.

The first override vote at 6:09 p.m. Tuesday failed to meet the two-thirds requirement by a tally of 73 “yes” votes to 39 “no” votes, with 11 House members not voting, according to the House Journal.

But a recount vote, taken at 6:29 p.m. Tuesday, passed by a 73-29 vote, with 19 members not voting, the journal showed.

Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington and a former House majority leader, called for the recount, despite voting “no” for the pay increase both times. Quinn is a former board chairman of the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve.

Contacted Wednesday by The Nerve, Quinn said because the initial override vote failed by just one vote by his calculations, he knew there would be a push for a recount, noting that the longer he waited, the more likely a recount would have been successful.

“The longer they have to work the votes, the more votes you lose,” Quinn said.

But his gamble to push for a quick recount ultimately didn’t work, he acknowledged, adding, “In hindsight, I wished I had done it immediately after the vote.”

The key to passage, The Nerve found in a review of the House Journal, was that eight lawmakers who initially voted “no” for the pay increase in the first vote didn’t vote the second time around, while two other House members who voted “no” initially had excused absences in the second vote. In addition, Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, switched his vote from “no” to “yes.”

Taylor didn’t return a phone message Thursday from The Nerve seeking comment. The eight House members who voted “no” for the pay raise initially but who were not present for the second vote were Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg; Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort; Raye Felder, R-York; Phyllis Henderson, R-Greenville; Peter McCoy, R-Charleston; Shannon Riley, R-Greenwood; Samuel Rivers, R-Berkeley; and Donna Wood, R-Spartanburg.

Most of eight representatives did not return phone messages from The Nerve. Contacted by Wednesday by The Nerve, Rivers, a pastor, said he didn’t vote the second time because he had stepped out of the chamber to take a couple of calls from parishioners.

“I had no idea they were going to reconsider,” Rivers said. “I thought it was over and done.”

Rivers said he would have voted “no” a second time had he been present.

In a written response Thursday to The Nerve, Erickson said she didn’t vote in the recount because she left the chamber and “simply took a few moments of what I thought was debate over a passed-over item to go to the restroom, do a little fine tuning of a budget proviso override (Veto 43) that I was going to need to make soon, and answer an urgent call from a constituent.”

“When I returned from the other necessary business, I was alerted by my colleagues that I had missed Mr. Quinn’s voice-vote reconsideration and the recorded vote of the reconsidered sustained Veto 76,” she added.

The Nerve was able to reach Allison on Wednesday, though after a reporter had identified himself and the purpose of the phone call, Allison said she couldn’t hear what the reporter was asking. She did not return a follow-up call from The Nerve.

Reach Brundrett at rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.