Padding the Legislative Session?

April 9, 2012

Investigative Reports

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aa312b3ff54dafc6aff51965495aaa82If S.C. Rep. Seth Whipper has his way, the 124-member House would start meeting every Monday when the General Assembly is in session.

Assuming House members continued to meet Tuesdays through Thursdays during normal legislative weeks as they do now, the extra day would cost state taxpayers more than $320,000 over the course of a typical session.

But Whipper, D-Charleston and author of a resolution (H. 5093) adding the Monday meeting day, says his proposal wouldn’t increase session time, but instead would make the legislative work week “more family friendly.”

“My goal is to make the work week more conducive to having a part-time Legislature,” he told The Nerve last week.

Generally, the Legislature meets Tuesdays through Thursdays for five months, starting on the second Tuesday in January and usually ending in June. South Carolina’s typical 21-week annual session is the second longest in the Southeast and 14th longest in the country, according to a 2010 study by the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve.

Measured in terms of months, the Palmetto State has the longest session in the Southeast, tying with Tennessee, the same study found.

Under Whipper’s resolution, introduced on March 28, House members, after the first week of session, would meet Mondays through Thursdays “unless otherwise ordered by the House.”

Generally, the daily chamber session would begin at noon on Mondays, and 10 a.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, except for the first three weeks of session when Tuesday’s session  time would be pushed back to 2 p.m. to allow for committee meetings, according to the resolution.

Under the S.C. Constitution, the House and Senate have the authority to pass rules affecting the operations of their respective chambers.

As The Nerve has reported, among other benefits, lawmakers can receive $131 per day during session for food and lodging. If all 124 House members receive those payments, adding an extra meeting day per week during session would cost taxpayers $16,244 more weekly, or $324,880 over a typical session (minus the first week as specified in Whipper’s proposal).

And that $320,000-plus figure doesn’t include mileage reimbursements to lawmakers.

Whipper, however, told The Nerve that under his resolution, the House would normally meet as a body Mondays through Wednesdays during session instead of Tuesdays through Thursdays. Under his resolution, Thursdays would be reserved for action on local uncontested bills, which typically don’t involve the full House and normally have been scheduled for perfunctory, third readings on Fridays if given second readings on Thursdays.

The House normally doesn’t meet as a body on Fridays, despite official House Journal entries suggesting otherwise.

Whipper, an attorney, said a Monday-through-Wednesday schedule would allow House members to have two consecutive days during the work week to attend to their private jobs or constituent matters.

“It might make for a more efficient General Assembly if we do it that way,” he said.

But Rep. Kris Crawford, R-Florence and a member of the House Rules Committee, said having the House and Senate meet on different session days wouldn’t work on a practical basis. He pointed out, for example, that the differing schedules would make it difficult for conference committees, which are made up of members of both chambers, to meet.

Crawford said to his knowledge, no one on the House Rules Committee has proposed changing the session days, adding, “I wouldn’t expect any changes in our rules until we adopt the rules at the beginning of next session.”

Neither Whipper nor the four co-sponsors of his resolution – Reps. Paul Agnew, D-Abbeville; Robert Brown, D-Charleston; Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston; and Kevin Ryan, R-Georgetown – are members of the Rules Committee.

Crawford said the House over the years has passed session-shortening bills that later died in the Senate.

“Much of the House, regardless of their political party, believes we are over there (at the State House) too much of the year,” he said.

The House last week was on furlough and is off again this week. Combined with a furlough week in February, the breaks will save taxpayers more than $150,000, House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said in a February press release.

Since last year, at least three joint resolutions (S. 154, S. 173 and S. 196) have been proposed in the Senate calling for state constitutional amendments to reduce the length of time the Legislature meets. None of the proposals has moved out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, formerly chaired by Republican Sen. Glenn McConnell of Charleston, who last month became the lieutenant governor with Ken Ard’s resignation.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, the immediate past chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and now the Judiciary Committee chairman, replacing McConnell, said the Senate’s furlough last week shows that the 46-member chamber is trying to save taxpayer dollars.

“There is no precedent for how little we’ve met in the last three or four years,” Martin said, referring to the entire General Assembly.

Still, Martin cautioned that shortening the session too much could be counter-productive.

“The less time we are in session, the less time we can respond to the people of South Carolina,” he said. “We’re getting to the point where we’re not going to be able to do our work.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.