Restructuring Bill Won’t Kill Joint-Hearings Requirement

January 18, 2013

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Section 11-11-90 of the state code is an inconvenient truth for the General Assembly, and thanks to a decision Thursday by a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, it will stay that way at least for now.

The section mandates that the “standing committees of the House of Representatives and of the Senate in charge of appropriation measures shall sit jointly in open sessions while considering the (governor’s) budget and shall begin such joint meetings within five days after the budget has been submitted to the General Assembly.”

The obscure statute, only recently brought to light through reporting by The Nerve and its parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council, has proven pesky for one simple reason: It legally prescribes an action no one in living memory can recall the House or Senate having taken.

Included in Senate bill S.22 (The S.C. Restructuring Act of 2013) was language to delete Section 11-11-90 as part of the bill’s ambitious mission to create a new comprehensive Department of Administration under the governor’s control. As submitted, the provision would have struck 11-11-90 entirely, which critics alleged was a method of conveniently disposing of a law the Legislature routinely has ignored.

Thursday morning, the Senate Judiciary subcommittee voted unanimously to strike the provision from the legislation, leaving the statute intact. Speaking to The Nerve after the decision, subcommittee chairman Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said ulterior motives never were in play when the bill was crafted.

“Obviously there were concerns that we were trying to hide stuff,” said Massey, a co-sponsor of the bill. “That really was never the intention, but after further reflection, we all concluded it would be best not to tinker with that process at all.”

Whether the House and Senate must comply with the statute is under active review by the S.C. Attorney General’s Office, which is acting on a letter of inquiry from state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort. Contacted Thursday, Mark Powell, spokesperson for Attorney General Alan Wilson, said work on that formal opinion still is underway and will be done “when it is done.”

If observed, the process would not only allow far greater public input into the budget-writing process but also would significantly embolden the governor’s budget – one traditionally dismissed out-of-hand by the Legislature. In her State-of-the-State speech Wednesday night and previously at her Dec. 21 press conference unveiling her executive budget for 2013-2014, Gov. Nikki Haley emphasized the need for her budget to be taken seriously and her spending priorities honored.

“We’ve released an executive budget that is balanced, funds the core functions of our government, strengthens underfunded needs like mental health and law enforcement, and identifies an estimated $90 million this year for road and bridge improvements,” Haley said in her address. “Let’s follow that blueprint.”

As it stands, though, the House and Senate again this year appear to stand to act in defiance of state law by failing to hold the joint hearings.

Although Haley’s executive budget was unveiled before Christmas, and therefore prior to the convening of the 2013 regular session, the more-conservative trigger for the five-day deadline for the joint hearings would have been Tuesday, Jan. 15,  the deadline for the General Assembly to have formally received copies of her budget. Counting the following five business days, at least one joint hearing has to be held by next Tuesday under state law.

No such hearings are scheduled.

Ahead now for S.22 is consideration by the full Senate Judiciary Committee next week.The committee chairman is Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens and one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

Although the restructuring bill was defeated at the end of last year’s regular session, Massey said he believes this year’s version, which also was mentioned by Haley in her State-of-the-State address as a priority, is an improvement over its 2012 counterpart.

“This bill is definitely stronger than where we ended up last year,” Massey said. “We’ve listened to a lot of concerns from different folks and have tried to address things. You can’t do everything that everybody wants, but we’ve tried to take the input we’ve had and make good decisions. I think we have a good bill.”

“There’s going to be opposition. We know that’s coming,” Massey continued. “There are certainly entrenched interests who have gained power in the current system, and they’re reluctant to let go of that power. So we’re going to have some fights.”

Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809 or ron@thenerve.org