Lawmakers Still Ignoring Budget Law

October 5, 2016

Inside Insight, Uncategorized

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By DUNCAN TAYLOR

committee roll call victory

Leaders were made aware of the budget law years ago. And yet.

For most of us, laws are meant to be followed. For those who make the laws, however – at least here in South Carolina – that’s not always the case.

Take the law dealing with the state budget process.

Title 11, Chapter 11 of the South Carolina Code of Laws lays out the requirements for public finance in the state. Within this chapter, one section stands out. Section 11-11-90 reads: “The standing committees of the House of Representatives and of the Senate in charge of appropriation measures shall sit jointly in open sessions while considering the budget and shall begin such joint meetings within five days after the budget has been submitted to the General Assembly by the Governor.” Heads of agencies may also be called to answer questions about their requested budgets.

It’s a transparent and reasonable way to work out the budget in a public forum. Yet neither the House nor the Senate has ever held these required meetings, as far as anybody knows. Instead of an open and transparent process – instead of a process, that is, in which the governor submits a full spending plan and the legislature openly debates and changes that plan – lawmakers have long preferred a far more diffuse and opaque system. To put it briefly: the budget starts by lawmakers completely ignoring the governor’s budget and writing their own version in a host of different Ways and Means subcommittees. Technically, all these subcommittee meetings are open to the public, but they’re held at a dizzying array of times and places, meaning that in practice no one can follow the process.

It’s understandable why lawmakers would prefer a more closed and opaque system, but are they really flouting the law so flagrantly?

The Nerve hasn’t been alone in raising the issue. Nearly four years ago, the Speaker of the House Jay Lucas sent a letter to Representative Brian White, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The letter asked for White to review the appropriate code sections and “shed some light” on why these joint hearings had never been held.

This letter was sent to White in January of 2013. Since then, at least one other legislator has publicly asked the same question. In December of 2014, Representative Jonathon Hill submitted a resolution asking the respective budget writing committees to follow the law. Seemingly to no avail.

This means that since Rep. Lucas sent his letter in 2013, the legislature has approved three budgets in apparent violation of the law. Perhaps, if lawmakers think the law is antiquated, they should change it. And if not, maybe they should follow it.

Duncan Taylor is a policy analyst at the South Carolina Policy Council