MY LAST NERVE: Spending Up, Transparency Down

July 2, 2015

Inside Insight

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Veto stamp

DO THE VETOES EVEN MATTER?

On Tuesday, Gov. Nikki Haley issued her budget vetoes. This year’s state budget – once again – is by far the largest budget in state history. In total – and including the Capital Reserve Fund bill and the Supplemental Appropriations bill – Gov. Haley’s vetoes added up to $30.2 million, or about 0.01 percent of the total budget. For perspective on how insignificant these vetoes are on the overall budget, just two provisos for separate capital projects at a pair of the state’s higher education institutions are the equivalent to the governor’s vetoes in total. Indeed, although $30.2 million may sound like a lot, and while it ought to sound like a lot, it’s a tiny fraction, not just of the total budget, but of the $878 million increase over last year’s budget.

Even if lawmakers sustained every one of the governor’s vetoes – highly unlikely, but even if they did – we’d still be talking chump change.

Still, the fault for out-of-control spending has to be laid at the legislature’s feet, not the governor’s, and maybe that’s why there were so many attempts to hide what was really going on.

This year we saw the House of Representatives try to avoid the statutorily required roll call votes on each section of the budget through a procedural maneuver. Rep. Nathan Ballentine (R-Lexington) raised the matter that roll call votes were required by law, only to be shot down by the Speaker of the House, Jay Lucas (R-Darlington), who reasoned that House rules trumped the law in that area. Eventually, the House was forced to give each section a recorded vote as the law requires.

The intent of the mandatory roll-call law was not to require some procedural, perfunctory, time-sucking maneuver. The intent was rather to force lawmakers to openly debate each section, so that citizens might actually have a clue what their elected officials are spending tax dollars on, and why. I know this because the South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization, for which I work – originated the proposal.

Despite the work being done over the years to force transparency, however, we probably know less about the budget in real time than ever before. Each time the public makes gains of transparency and accountability, legislative leaders get savvier with hiding earmarks and craftier with procedure.

The sad truth is that if you’re not actually on the budget-writing committee, you’re unlikely to get answers about how or why money is being spent. For that matter, sometimes even when you are on Ways and Means or Finance, you and the public may still get no clear answers on the certain expenditures. We saw that just a few weeks ago, for example, when Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort) inquired about a $70 million provision in the budget to pay down debt as part of an “economic development” agreement (the debt payment would be made in order to free up more bonding capacity for the state). Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, quickly cut off discussion on the appropriation, citing the need to keep “economic development” deals confidential.

This year’s budget debate had to be one of the most outrageous displays of opacity in recent memory. Even aside from lawmakers’ custom of ignoring the state budget law, and even aside from the House’s attempt to get around mandatory roll-call voting, the final stages of this year’s negotiations happened in all-night sessions at which the public by definition could not attend. Naturally, lawmakers will spend every dime of revenue coming into Columbia – including the surplus money – and even if the legislature sustains a few of Gov. Haley’s vetoes, that money won’t go back to taxpayers but will just be spent next year.

The legislature is set to return to Columbia Monday to debate and vote on these vetoes. The House will get first crack at each. Whichever vetoes they override – it takes a two thirds vote in each chamber of the members present and voting to do so – will be sent to the Senate. Vetoes the House sustains will stand, and the Senate will not take these up.

But don’t forget. We’re talking about a tiny fraction of a fraction of the state budget. No one’s a winner here.

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