Lawmakers Not Following Yet Another Law

October 29, 2015

Inside Insight

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Puppets on Strings

‘Strings attached’ still largely secret

South Carolina lawmakers are developing a well-deserved reputation for ignoring the law. Take, for instance, the state law requiring House and Senate appropriations committees to meet in joint open session to debate the executive budget at the outset of the legislative session. As far as anyone is aware, lawmakers have never followed it. Or take the state law forbidding the appointment of family members to positions overseen by the appointers. Lawmakers routinely flout it.

It will soon be time to add another law to the list. In 2011, the legislature passed – anonymously in both House and Senate, and with little or no fanfare in the media – Act 28. The law requires the General Assembly to “appropriate all anticipated federal and other funds for the operations of state agencies in the appropriations act and [to] include any conditions on the expenditure of these funds as part of the appropriations act.” There’s more to it, but essentially the law requires the legislature to specify what state agencies and program are required to do in order to receive and spend federal money.

In short, the “strings attached” have to be openly acknowledged and made available to the public. Which is a big deal, since federal funds make up a third of the entire state budget – currently around $8 billion against a $25 billion total spending plan.

Every time a federal agency approves funding for a state agency, the former specifies what the latter may and may not do with the money, and – more importantly – what changes the latter must make to its policies in order to receive the funds. State officials make changes to state policies and programs all the time in order to receive federal money, but the decision to relinquish state sovereignty in this way is left exclusively to those state officials – the public isn’t consulted or informed and, indeed, has no idea it’s happening.

That’s what Act 28 sought to change.

The only trouble? Lawmakers don’t require the disclosure of these “strings,” and they make little or no attempt to specify them in the state budget or anywhere else. In a word, they seem to be ignoring the law.

Not surprising, but it shouldn’t be allowed to happen. As SCPC has proposed in a report on resisting federal encroachment, state agencies ought to treat federal grants as contracts – negotiated agreements in which the money, expectations, and requirements are specified in a document that’s open to the public and media. Every time South Carolina state officials promise to do something (or not do something) in exchange for federal largesse, the public has a right to know it, and lawmakers have a right to make it plain.

That is the only way to put a halt to federal control of state policy, and the only way (as far as we can tell) to put the brakes on federal spending.

For now, though, state lawmakers should read the law they passed in 2011.