Legislative Staffing Grows with Government Restructuring Law

August 17, 2015

Investigative Reports

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SC Senate ChamberWhile the restructuring of state government under a 2014 law supposedly will make it more accountable and efficient, taxpayers keep getting stuck with big bills with the reshuffling.

Take the Senate chamber’s budget for the fiscal year that started July 1, for example.

The Senate Finance Committee, led by Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, earlier this year quietly inserted an extra $500,000 in its chamber budget for what’s listed online as “other oper(ating) expenses.” The House later took it out, though a budget conference committee that included Leatherman put it back in, records show.

The general-fund hike, which the full Legislature and Gov. Nikki Haley approved, is a 26.5 percent increase in that category over last fiscal year’s budget.

The total Senate chamber’s budget for fiscal 2016, which includes “other” funds, is $14.1 million, a $770,097, or 5.7 percent, increase over last fiscal year’s ratified budget of about $13.4 million, records show.

In a written response last week after The Nerve submitted a state Freedom of Information Act request for records on the budget hike, Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett said the additional $500,000 in general funds is for “new staff positions primarily related to the Senate’s Legislative Oversight work.”

Under the “South Carolina Restructuring Act of 2014,” which was signed by Haley in January 2014 though parts of it didn’t take effect until July 1 of this year, each standing committee in the House and Senate must conduct, beginning Jan. 1 of this year, “oversight studies and investigations on all agencies within the standing committee’s subject matter jurisdiction at least once every seven years.”

Under Act 121, the Senate president pro tempore and House speaker have the authority to determine the agency-review schedule in their respective chambers. The law requires the investigating committees to take testimony under oath and gives them subpoena powers.

Refusing to testify or “wilfuly” giving “false, materially misleading, or materially incomplete testimony” can result in a felony conviction of “contempt of the General Assembly,” punishable by up to five years in state prison and a fine.

The law, among other things, established a new Department of Administration under Haley’s control and eliminated the Budget and Control Board, though it created a stand-alone agency (State Fiscal Accountability Authority) led by the same five-member panel overseeing the former BCB agency.

The Nerve in February reported that the government restructuring law Haley had long sought would cost at least $22 million more this fiscal year under her proposed executive budget. This fiscal year’s total ratified state budget, which includes state, federal and “other” funds, is $24.9 billion, budget records show.

Gossett told The Nerve last week that three oversight research jobs in the Senate Research Office – with one position having a salary of $90,000 and the other two at $85,000 each – are included in the additional $500,000 budgeted for this fiscal year, though he noted those positions were created last fiscal year. A fourth staff-attorney position that “would support the Oversight staff and work in the Senate Research Office” remains vacant, and the salary for that job will be “based on the candidate’s experience,” he said.

In addition to those positions, a research assistant position was added to the Senate Transportation Committee, Gossett said. As for an unspecified $300,000 line item under “other funds,” Gossett said that money is a “continuation of funds for the Joint Citizens & Legislative Committee on Children that has been in place for a few years.”

Gossett did not respond by publication of this story to certain follow-up questions, including why an additional $500,000 was needed this fiscal year if three of the five positions were created last fiscal year, and whether there were any formal budget presentations on the Senate chamber’s budget in either the full Senate Finance Committee or subcommittee level.

Several Finance Committee members contacted recently by The Nerve said their chamber’s budget was not brought up in their appropriation subcommittees, and they did not recall it being discussed in full committee.

As has been his longstanding practice with The Nerve, Leatherman did not respond to written requests seeking comment for this story.

The Nerve previously has reported that both the House and Senate routinely have ignored standard budget procedures followed by other state agencies. Dozens of legislative staffers have received sizeable pay hikes in recent years:  The Nerve reported in March, for example, that since January 2014, the total payroll of House staff employees making at least $50,000 annually jumped by 11.3 percent to $4.53 million, while the total salaries of Senate staffers earning $50,000 or more increased by about 8.3 percent to $4.86 million

In response to Act 121, the House decided to create a standing legislative oversight committee to handle reviews of state agencies. Contacted last week by The Nerve, Rep. Weston Newton, R-Beaufort and the committee chairman, said one new staffer was hired while two others were transferred from other House committees to support the oversight committee’s work.

“It was recognized that it would obviously require additional staff,” said Newton, noting that given his committee’s responsibilities, the staff size eventually could be second to the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee.

Newton, an attorney, said his committee this year has reviews underway at various stages for 10 agencies, ranging in size from the small Comptroller General’s Office to the massive Department of Transportation, which was the subject of a subcommittee meeting last week.

“Hopefully, through the review process, problems will be identified before they become major problems that require major fixes,” he said.

There are 63 agencies that “without question fall within the definition” of a state agency in the government restructuring law, Newton said, adding there are “100-plus additional entities that may qualify.”

“When the (House) speaker (Jay Lucas, R-Darlington) last year was discussing this at the very outset of session, he said this committee when it gets into full gear would certainly have more staff,” Newton said.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.