Restructuring: Lots of Talk, Little Action

December 7, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The Nerve“Restructuring” might have been the buzzword of this year’s legislative session, but in the end, there was a whole lot of talk – and even an emergency state Supreme Court ruling – with no concrete results.

Take the State Agency Restructuring Study Committee, for example. The 12-member legislative committee was created by a proviso (89.136) in the 2010-11 state budget to recommend ways to “further streamline government to realize maximum effectiveness and efficiency.”

The committee, co-chaired by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and then-House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, was supposed to complete its review of various state agencies, including an estimate of cost savings, by Dec. 10, 2010.

But as The Nerve initially reported in October 2010, the committee waited more than three months after the proviso was ratified to meet for the first time. Contacted recently by The Nerve, several committee members said no report was produced or votes taken by the full committee on any recommendations.

“I don’t recall signing off on anything,” said Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence. “It felt like a waste at the time, but it wasn’t a total waste.”

“I can’t say I’ve actually seen a report,” Rep. Chandra Dillard, D-Greenville, said, though she added, “Having a report for just the sake of having a report is more frustrating to me.”

The Nerve recently sent written questions about the committee’s work to Leatherman, though he didn’t respond by publication of this story.

Dillard said agency representatives who appeared before her subcommittee didn’t seem eager to cut anything from their own departments, noting, “What I gleaned from the presentations was that they are already stripped to the bone. … Nobody put their hand up and said, ‘Cut me.’”

Lowe said though there was no formal action taken by the committee, he believes “some restructuring issues and ideas came out” of it, which led lawmakers to introduce a number of related bills. He cited two bills, both introduced in the House:

  • H. 3066, which would transfer many of the functions of the S.C. Budget and Control Board to a new Department of Administration under the governor’s control.
  • H. 3267, which would merge the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services with the Department of Corrections.

Both bills cleared the House but got bogged down in the Senate. That, and the lack of progress on several other related bills, frustrated Republican Gov. Nikki Haley to the point that she ordered lawmakers back into session after they concluded their regular business in early June.

Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston and an attorney, filed a lawsuit contending that Haley overstepped her authority under the state constitution. The S.C. Supreme Court agreed with McConnell in a narrow vote.

Besides the Department of Administration and PPP-Corrections-merger bills, Haley wanted bills passed requiring the governor and lieutenant governor to run on a single political ticket, and allowing the governor to appoint the state superintendent of education, who currently is popularly elected.

None of those bills made it to Haley’s desk for her signature.

“We’re just waiting to see if Republican members of the Senate will pass Republican reforms,” Rep. Kris Crawford, R-Florence, told The Nerve recently. “That’s where all this stuff is sitting.”

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens and the Senate Rules Committee chairman, told The Nerve recently that the Department of Administration bill is on the “special order,” or priority, calendar when senators return to Columbia in January.

“I do think the sentiment is so strong to eliminate the Budget and Control Board,” Martin said. “That will move forward.”

Martin added that he believes that a bill putting the governor and lieutenant governor on the same ticket also will clear the Senate next year.

Unlike the initial House version of the Department of Administration bill, the Senate version does away with the five-member BCB governing board, which is chaired by the governor and whose other members include the state comptroller general and treasurer, and chairmen of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees.

Critics of the board, which is unique in the country, say the quasi-executive-legislative panel dilutes the authority of the governor.

Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville and author of the Department of Administration bill, told The Nerverecently he’s not opposed to eliminating the BCB’s governing board if there is an “independent” group handling certain functions. But he said he can’t live with the Senate’s decision to strip out legislative oversight of the proposed Department of Administration.

“One of the functions of the General Assembly is oversight of the administration,” he said. “Sometimes, they (requirements of a law) do not get carried out as they are intended.”

Along those lines, Smith said he would like to see internal financial auditing functions done by state agencies transferred to the Office of State Auditor, which now reports to the BCB. He added he also would like to see the Legislative Audit Council, which investigates the operations of state agencies at the request of lawmakers, merged into the auditor’s office.

“This will aid the Legislature in their oversight responsibilities,” Smith said. “It’s very costly to put auditing functions in every agency in the state.”

Crawford, who sponsored several agency-merger bills this year, said he will be pushing next year to merge the departments of Mental Health (DMH) and Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services (DAODAS) into the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

“When you integrate health services with mental health services, you get better outcomes for both,” said Crawford, a physician.

Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg and  lead sponsor of the probation-corrections-merger bill, told The Nerve recently that though he hopes his bill will pass next year, he’s “kind of shifting gears” and will instead push another bill of his (H. 3268) that would merge the Department of Public Safety with the State Law Enforcement Division.

“The leadership (SLED Chief) Mark Keel can provide is amazing, but especially in this time when we’re cutting back on costs, it’s something that can be evaluated,” Sellers said.

A big question next year will be whether there will be as much enthusiasm to restructure state government given the state Board of Economic Advisors’ projection last month that the state will have an extra $920.5 million for fiscal year 2012-13, which starts July 1.

“The first question I get at every speaking session is, ‘How are you going to spend the billion-dollar surplus’”?  Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter and a member of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, told The Nerve recently.

Smith, a co-sponsor of the probation-corrections-merge bill, said discussions about merging agencies will still be relevant next year even with the surplus, which he noted should be committed first to paying off large obligations, such as the state retirement system’s reported unfunded liability.

“If there is a surplus, I’m one to think it ought to be refunded back to the taxpayers,” he said.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-411 or rick@thenerve.org.