Legislature Hoarding Millions in State Tax Dollars

August 26, 2015

Investigative Reports

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HoarderThe S.C. Legislature started fiscal 2016 with nearly $30 million in extra general funds – for its own use, records show.

The 124-member House is operating this fiscal year, which began July 1, on a nearly $21.9 million total ratified budget. But it started the fiscal year with about $23.3 million in additional general funds left over from fiscal 2015, according to state comptroller general records.

The $23,282,545 in “carried-forward” appropriations ranked as the fifth-highest out of a collective $415 million in leftover general funds among state agencies and budget categories listed in Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom’s year-end financial report for fiscal 2015, which was released publicly last week.

Other general-fund reserve amounts listed in Eckstrom’s report didn’t come close to what the House had at the start of the fiscal year when compared to the agencies’ total ratified budgets, The Nerve found in a review of state budget records.

The S.C. Department of Health and Human Services, for example, recorded $174.3 million in general-fund reserves – the highest among all state agencies listed in the report – though that amount represents about 2.5 percent of its total $7 billion budget, which includes state, federal and “other” funds.

To put the House’s reserves, which represent 106 percent of this fiscal year’s overall chamber budget, in some perspective, it’s larger than the current total budgets of 48 state agencies and divisions, The Nerve’sreview found.

The chamber’s general-fund reserves have grown tremendously in recent years, from $5.8 million at the start of fiscal 2012 to $19.6 million at the start of last fiscal year, comptroller general records show.

The 46-member Senate also is flush with money these days. Its total fiscal 2016 budget is $14.1 million, and the chamber started the fiscal year with nearly $6.6 million in general fund reserves, which represent about 46.5 percent of its overall budget.

Both chambers in recent years also have recorded “other” fund surpluses, though the amounts were smaller than general fund reserves. Current other-fund reserve figures were not available by publication of this story.

The Nerve this week left written or phone messages with Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence; Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett; House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington; and House Clerk Charles Reid seeking comment on this story but received no response. The Nerve asked them why they believed it was necessary for their respective chambers to have relatively large reserves, and why some of their reserves couldn’t be returned to the state’s general fund.

The Nerve previously has reported the House and Senate often ignore standard budget procedures followed by other state agencies, and that dozens of legislative staffers have received sizeable pay hikes in recent yearsThe Nerve reported in March 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.

Earlier this month, The Nerve reported the Senate received an additional $500,000 in its budget this fiscal year primarily for extra – and mostly well-paid – staff to handle state-agency oversight responsibilities.

Under a state budget proviso (Proviso 117.23 in the current budget) that is renewed annually, state agencies generally are allowed to carry forward up to 10 percent of their unspent general-fund appropriations from the prior fiscal year into the current fiscal year.

But every year, lawmakers carve out a special exception (Proviso 91.11 in the current state budget) for their respective chambers, allowing them to carry over all unspent funds.

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