MY LAST NERVE: General Assembly, You Had One Job

June 12, 2015

Inside Insight

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AND YOU DIDN’T GET IT DONE

The South Carolina General Assembly met from January to June, for a total of 20 weeks, in 2015. Members passed 124 bills and/or joint resolutions, and 830 resolutions of congratulations, honor, sympathy, and memorialization.

Whether they actually addressed some of the most important issues is debatable. While both chambers debated wide-ranging ethics reform and reforms to transportation funding, neither did so with any intent to fix the underlying problem. The ethics reform bills dealt mainly with restrictions on citizens’ conduct, not on lawmakers’ conduct: one provision would regulate “electioneering”; another would criminalize “frivolous” complaints against state judges. All the major “roads bills,” similarly, treated the whole problem as one of revenue and either mostly or totally ignored the underlying structural problems in the road funding system.

What is not debatable, however, is that the legislature has failed to do its most fundamental job – pass an appropriations bill.

While both the House and Senate have each passed their own budget, the respective spending plans are very far apart. Although it’s not unusual for the chambers’ budgets to be different (a conference committee of three members of each chamber is usually appointed to iron out differences), it is unusual that the possibility of agreement among the six-committee should be so remote that lawmakers have to make contingency plans. Last year, by contrast, the legislature avoided a conference committee altogether by working out an agreement behind closed doors.

However, this week the Senate Finance Committee was called to Columbia to take up and pass a continuing resolution. The resolution was pitched to senators by committee chairman, Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence), as “insurance” in case the budget gets further bogged down. It would allow for the continued funding of state government until the legislature could get its act together enough to pass a funding bill for the next fiscal year.

One of the most overlooked reasons for the budget differences is the fact that lawmakers blatantly ignore the law requiring the two budget-writing committees to sit jointly to consider the governor’s budget. These meetings are supposed to begin within five days of receiving the governor’s budget, which is to be submitted to the leadership of each chamber within five days of the convening of the legislative session. In a sea of duplicative and nonsensical laws, this one actually makes sense. The governor is the chief executive of the state, elected statewide, and is the only elected official involved in the budget process with those credentials. He or she is clearly, therefore, the most appropriate official to propose a statewide spending plan. Yes, the legislature is the appropriations body, and I’m not suggesting they sign off on any executive budget without a lengthy debate. But when lawmakers throw the executive budget out the window as soon as they get it, it sets up a complicated and unnecessarily long process that inevitably leads us to where we are today – less than three weeks away from the start of a new fiscal year without a budget. Nor is this an usual place for us to be in. Although our legislative session is among the longest in the nation, lawmakers rarely get the budget done on time.

When lawmakers return to session next Tuesday, the House will likely take up debate on a supplemental appropriations bill that will decide how to spend the state’s unexpected $300 million (plus) windfall. Consideration of such a bill is pretty rare. Lawmakers are often able to agree on how to spend excess revenue by proviso in the General Appropriations Act. The Senate meanwhile will likely adopt the continuing resolution passed by Senate Finance on Wednesday, making way for the House and Senate budget conferees to duke it out over the budget for as long as necessary. The Senate also needs to pass a third appropriations bill – the Capital Reserve Fund bill – which is usually shuttled in and out with the budget by each body, but was filibustered this session by Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort), who wanted to redirect funding in the bill for pet projects to the state’s poorly maintained roads and infrastructure.

Even if an agreement is reached on all three bills next week, they still need to be sent to the governor for her approval. Any vetoes on the appropriations bill will cause the legislature to return to Columbia for at least another week to consider them.

Of course, none of this would be an issue – the taxpayer dollars wasted by ultra-long legislative sessions, the uncertainty of not knowing next year’s funding levels, the frustration many ordinary citizens feel that their state can’t even produce a budget – if lawmakers would just follow the law.

Jamie Murguia is Director of Research at the S.C. Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization.