MY LAST NERVE: Here’s How to Shorten Session, People

March 27, 2015

Inside Insight

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shorten session

IT AIN’T ROCKET SCIENCE. IT AIN’T EVEN SCIENCE

Members of the South Carolina House pride themselves on addressing the issues that really matter to South Carolinians. State senators, by contrast, think of their chamber as the “deliberative body”: the body that might not take up every issue of importance, but that thoroughly debates the issues it does address.

Whatever the reality is, this much is true: that very little gets done from year to year.

Accordingly, the House recently passed a bill to shorten the legislative session by five weeks. Why is shortening session a good idea? Because the more time lawmakers spend in the capital, the more face-time they get with lobbyists and consultants. To put the same point another way: the longer bills sit in committee, the more time special interests have to gut or otherwise ruin them.

So – what about this bill?

Under the proposal passed by the House, the General Assembly would convene the second Tuesday in February rather than the second Tuesday in January, seemingly shortening session by four weeks. I say “seemingly” because the bill would allow for legislators to work in committee beginning the first Tuesday in January (currently the first day of regular session) as well as meet in local session. The bill would also constitutionally require the General Assembly to adjourn the last Thursday in May rather than the first Thursday in June – which would only shorten session by three legislative days. This is an interesting change, however, because sine die adjournment of the General Assembly is currently required by state law, not the Constitution.

Sorry, but this isn’t a serious attempt at reform. Really it only trims one week (three legislative days) off the length of our legislative session. Further, explicitly permitting lawmakers to meet and conduct hearings on matters that may eventually become law while technically not in session raises serious concerns about transparency. And if lawmakers are meeting in the capital to discuss official business, then they are likely receiving their mileage and subsistence pay. So this reform won’t even realize the full savings that should occur if the session was shortened and these payments didn’t have to be made at all.

Despite claims by many lawmakers that the state can’t shorten the legislative session because there wouldn’t be enough time to deal with the “major issues” every year, they can and there is. They don’t even need to pass any additional legislation to ensure they have time to address the core functions of government. All they need to do is follow the state’s budget law, stop wasting time on the floor, and stop grabbing more power for themselves over state government.

State law lays out a clear and commonsense process for the governor and lawmakers to follow when crafting the state’s annual appropriations bill. That process is as follows: the governor drafts the initial bill, it’s sent to the legislature within five days of the first day of session, it’s considered – jointly – by the budget-writing committees of each chamber, and the bill can be amended from there. This allows the bill to originate from a statewide perspective – something only the governor can do and locally elected lawmakers cannot.

The legislature should cut out the time it spends congratulating the latest championship high school football team, pageant queens, and doctors of the day, and instead use that time to debate legislation. Sure, it’s nice for teams and beauty queens to be recognized. But maybe it’s not entirely necessary for a well-functioning government.

What would really reduce the time lawmakers have to spend in Columbia, though, is cutting out the time allotted to power grabbing. For every bit of executive power lawmakers grab, they also create new oversight responsibilities for themselves. Consider what lawmakers did with the Department of Administration bill a couple years ago. While purporting to dismantle the Budget and Control Board and give the state’s governor more authority over executive branch functions, the legislature assumed oversight authority over all of state government.

More power for lawmakers – that’s bad enough. But with power also came new oversight processes, requiring the creation of new committees and/or devolving responsibilities to legislative staff. That takes more time, more resources – and a longer session.

One final change would reduce the time lawmakers spend in Columbia. A serious reform bill was pre-filed for this year’s session by Sen. Lee Bright (R-Spartanburg). The bill would shorten the legislative session and implement a biennial – every other year – budget process. His measure would require the General Assembly to adjourn the second Thursday in March in even-numbered years, and the second Thursday in April in odd-numbered years. To give you an idea of how significant this reform would be: if it were current law, last year’s session would have been cut by 12 weeks, and the current session would be cut by eight weeks – and we would now be less than two weeks away from the end of session.

Unfortunately, the committee’s chairman, Sen. Larry Martin (R- Pickens), has not scheduled a hearing for the bill.

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