MY LAST NERVE: Too Much Time to Do Nothing

April 18, 2014

Inside Insight

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Time to shorten session

TIME TO SHORTEN SESSION.
YOU GUYS AREN’T DOING ANYTHING ANYWAY.

The South Carolina legislature sits for five months, 21 weeks, or 143 calendar days. It’s one of the longest sessions in the nation, leaving aside the 10 states with professional legislatures.

House lawmakers began a two-week furlough this week (for a total of three weeks of furlough this year), while the Senate began its furlough Thursday. Both chambers will return in a week to complete whatever it is they intend to do before adjourning for the year in June. What a great time, then, to look back on what lawmakers have accomplished in the roughly 13 weeks they’ve been in Columbia, and what they could accomplish when they return for the remaining five weeks of session.

From the restructuring of state government to reforming a process that allowed lawmakers to investigate and punish other lawmakers, this year was supposed to be the year to accomplish large-scale, meaningful reform at the State House. As in years past, unfortunately, the legislature has come up short on “historic reform.”

The governor campaigned on – and legislators publicly supported – the elimination of the Budget and Control Board (BCB) and the creation of a Department of Administration (DOA). After months of back and forth, the legislature finally sent a bill creating the DOA to the governor for her signature. As The Nerve documented when the bill passed, this bill was hardly what citizens were expecting after years of ground work pushing for the elimination of the BCB. Most obviously, the bill didn’t actually eliminate the Board – it just renamed it the State Fiscal Affairs Authority.

Or take the years-long debate over “ethics reform.” Last year lawmakers started debating several so-called ethics bills. The goal of these bills – from the perspective of ordinary citizens – was to require lawmakers to disclose who pays them, eliminate the practice of legislative self-policing, and tighten up laws allowing elected officials to use campaign money for personal expenses. The bill that has made it the furthest in the legislative process – though would not accomplish all of the above – is now stalled in a House committee with only weeks remaining in the session.

What was probably the most important reform the legislature could have passed this year – slowing the impact of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) on citizens – was killed in a procedural move on the Senate floor. The bill would have established a clear process by which the state applied for and accepted federal funds and the strings, mandates, and regulations on individuals and businesses that come with it – likely putting an end to future attempts for state government to draw down every bit of federal funds available without first assessing the impact it would have.

When it comes to education, there is one phrase that has been the center of a contentious debate – Common Core. Several bills aimed at getting South Carolina out of Common Core and the testing consortium the state entered in 2010 have been introduced. One bill that would, among other things, require the state to leave the Smarter Balanced Consortium is currently set for special order in the Senate. However, it isn’t the first bill in priority status, and since the Senate hasn’t even received the budget from the Finance Committee, time is running out to accomplish anything on the issue. (Earlier this week, incidentally, Superintendent of Education Mick Zais issued a letter stating that the Department was withdrawing the state from the Smarter Balanced Consortium – so at least someone is taking real action on Common Core; just not the legislature.)

How does this session stack up in terms of cutting taxes and reigning in out-of-control spending? Not too good. One bill that would have had an enormous positive impact on the daily life of every South Carolinian has yet to receive even a subcommittee hearing. That bill, S. 901, would eliminate the income tax in its entirety by reducing each tax bracket by 1.4 percent every year until every bracket equals zero. That bill was filed on January 14 (the first day of session) and has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

In short, things aren’t looking good when the legislature returns for its final 5 weeks – though in recent years session has lasted long into the summer months because the two chambers can’t get their business accomplished in the months allowed by state law.

One thing lawmakers have managed to get accomplished, however, is the passage of more than 360 resolutions expressing congratulations or sympathy. So the legislature has plenty of time and energy to express congratulations for football teams for winning championships, and to shower praise on important local people for retiring or turning 90 years old. But reforming the state’s grossly inept government structure? Putting an end to legal corruption? Doing anything at all about the one thing that almost everyone is concerned about – Common Core?

Nah.

If this is all lawmakers are going to accomplish, it’s time to shorten session. They don’t need five months to do nothing.