Restructuring Panel Off to Slow Start

October 20, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveA legislative committee created this year to study ways to streamline state government hasn’t exactly been a model of efficiency itself.

The 12-member committee met as a group for the first time on Sept. 15, committee member Rep. Chandra Dillard, D-Greenville, told The Nerve last week. That’s more than three months after the Legislature ratified a state budget proviso (89.136) creating the committee.

Dillard said the group hasn’t met as a full committee since then. She said one of its subcommittees she sits on met for the first time on Oct. 8, though two other subcommittees had not yet met.

Another subcommittee dealing with the S.C. Budget and Control Board is scheduled to meet for the first time Thursday.

Asked why the committee has been moving in slow gear, Dillard replied, “I think that’s a good question.”

Streamlining government agencies isn’t a new idea, but it could take on added significance as lawmakers returning to session in January will have to grapple with a state budget hole for next fiscal year that is projected to be up to $1 billion, mainly because of the loss of federal stimulus money.

The budget proviso requires the study committee to present its recommendations, including a cost-savings estimate, by Dec. 10 to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence; and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson. Leatherman and Cooper are co-chairmen of the study committee.

Leatherman and Cooper did not respond to written questions last week from The Nerve.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, another committee member, Rep. Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville, said he doesn’t know why there has been relatively little activity, given the committee’s Dec. 10 deadline.

“It’s my understanding that Sen. Leatherman and Sen. (Glenn) McConnell call the shots on this, and they would be the ones to respond to this,” he said.

McConnell, R-Charleston and the Senate president pro tempore, did not respond to written questions from The Nerve. Sens. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, and Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, co-sponsored the proviso, according to the Office of State Budget; Jackson didn’t respond to written or phone messages left for him last week.

In a written response this week to The Nerve, Ryberg, who is not a committee member, said he doesn’t “know anything about the schedule or deadlines of this committee.”

The study committee was not endorsed by Gov. Mark Sanford, though he didn’t veto the budget proviso.

“Another committee dedicated to studying a commonsense idea like restructuring is redundant in itself,” Sanford spokesman Ben Fox said in a written response last week to The Nerve. “While there’s certainly room for more talk, the taxpayers demand action.”

“We’ve proposed, and in fact the House has passed,” Fox continued, “a Department of Administration bill that would consolidate the executive functions of state government appropriately under the executive branch. This reform has been repeatedly blocked in the Senate.”

The governor also has called for voters to decide whether to continue to elect certain constitutional officers, such as the secretary of state.

Restructuring state agencies has been a key priority of Sanford during his eight-year tenure as governor. He has argued that the S.C. Constitution gives too much power to the Legislature and not enough to the governor, and that streamlining and putting more agencies under the governor’s control would result in greater accountability and tax savings.

“In fact, more than 80 percent of state government remains outside the governor’s direct line of accountability,” Fox said in his written response. “South Carolina’s state government is a hodgepodge of some 50-plus independent agencies and departments, some of which are redundant.”

Although he didn’t get everything he wanted, Sanford was successful in pushing for the creation of cabinet positions for the departments of Transportation and Motor Vehicles, and the state Employment Security Commission, which was renamed the Department of Employment and Workforce.

Not everyone is a believer in restructuring, however. Sen. John Land, D-Clarendon, the Legislature’s longest-serving current member, told The Nerve last week that in his 35 years in the General Assembly, “I’ve never seen any dollar savings from the restructuring we did.”

The problem with granting the governor the power to hire and fire agency heads is that it can lead to a loss of expertise with a change in governors, Land said. Agency heads also can be pressured not to state positions that are contrary to the governor’s out of fear of being fired, he added.

“Kick them out if they’re not performing,” Land said, “but don’t kick them out just because you have the right to kick them out.”

Under the budget proviso creating the legislative study committee, Land, as the Senate minority leader, appointed one committee member – Sen. Jackson. Besides Jackson, McConnell, Leatherman,Cooper, Loftis and Dillard, the other six committee members are:

  • Sen. Phillip Shoopman, R-Greenville;
  • Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee;
  • Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg;
  • House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington;
  • Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley; and
  • Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence.

Besides Land, the other lawmakers with appointment authority under the proviso were McConnell; Leatherman; Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee; House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston; Cooper; Bingham; and House Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-Calhoun.Dillard, who joined the House in 2009, told The Nerve last week that the one and only meeting of the full committee so far was mainly organizational.

“We talked about what we can do that is feasible in the short amount of time (we have),” she said.

Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee staff were instructed to provide the study committee with background information on past restructuring efforts as well as current data on state agencies, Dillard said. The public also will have input, though it likely will be limited to e-mailed suggestions because of time constraints, she said.

The committee is divided into three subcommittees – one dealing the Budget and Control Board; another dealing with education, cultural, regulatory and transportation agencies; and the third dealing with health, social services, natural resources and criminal justice agencies.

Dillard sits on the health subcommittee, which she said met for the first time on Oct. 8. Loftis, a member of the BCB subcommittee, told The Nerve last week that his subcommittee had not yet met. Leatherman and Cooper, who are among the five BCB members, co-chair the BCB subcommittee.

Asked if he thinks the BCB, a quasi-executive, quasi-legislative authority chaired by Sanford, should be abolished in favor of a Department of Administration under the governor’s control, Loftis replied, “I very firmly support an agency of administration of some order so we can have some focus and some purpose.”

Ryberg, who co-sponsored the budget proviso establishing the study committee, told The Nerve that he would like to see “most, if not all, of (the BCB’s) functions transferred into the executive branch.”

“This would serve the causes of both taxpayer savings and government accountability,” he said in his written response.

Ryberg also said he believes that restructuring the state’s health and higher education agencies “would yield tremendous savings.”

Asked for her opinions on restructuring, Dillard told The Nerve: “To me, an overarching solution that could be quite effective is how we use technology. Most of our social services are very labor intensive. “

Dillard acknowledged that it will be a difficult task for the study committee to agree on a set of recommendations by the Dec. 10 deadline imposed in the budget proviso.

“How do you turn a tanker around by Dec. 10?” she said jokingly.

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