S.C. Senate: Charity Starts at Home

May 4, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveIf there’s one thing you can say about state lawmakers, it’s that they look after their own – at taxpayers’ expense.

Amid all the public hand-wringing about slashing hundreds of millions of dollars from state agencies next fiscal year, the Senate is proposing hiking its own 2010-11 budget by at least $3 million, or 36 percent.

Assuming the budget passed Thursday by the full Senate mirrors an earlier version approved by the Senate Finance Committee, it would be the 46-member chamber’s largest-ratified budget in at least the past 12 years, according to a review by The Nerve of ratified state budgets since fiscal year 1998, the most recent data available.

The final Senate budget had not been released by Senate staffers as of publication of this story.

The Senate Finance Committee version sets the chamber’s total budget for next fiscal year at $12.3 million, a $3.2 million, or 36 percent, increase from this fiscal year’s most recently amended budget of about $9.1 million. The $12.3 million figure doesn’t include an additional $1 million earmarked in a budget proviso for the chamber for reapportionment, or the redrawing of legislative district lines.

The proposed hike is even higher – nearly $3.9 million, or 46 percent – when compared to the Senate’s initially ratified 2009-10 budget of $8.4 million.

The Senate’s generosity to itself is even bigger when its proposed budget is compared to what the House proposed for the Senate for next fiscal year.

The House version appropriates about $7.8 million to the Senate for 2010-11. Based on that figure, the Senate’s proposed hike would be about $4.5 million, or 58 percent.

How exactly the extra money would be spent is unclear. Budget documents, for example, show no proposed increase in Senate staff for next fiscal year.

“All I’ve heard this week is core function, core function, core function,” Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, said in defending the proposed increase while on the Senate floor late Thursday night. “The legislative branch is a core function of government.”

McConnell was responding to a budget proviso offered by Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, to cut the proposed hike by 50 percent, allocating half of the savings, a total of $1.95 million, to the state Judicial Department, education and Department of Public Safety.

“Frankly, I’m going to have trouble going home to the crowd … of parents of disabled children and to the auditorium filled with parents, people in the PTA and teachers whose budgets are being cut, and just trying to justify with them why the state Senate (budget) is going up while everybody else is being cut,” Rose said from the floor.

“I figure the Senate will just have to learn to do with some cut just like everybody else,” he added.

McConnell made a motion to table Rose’s proposed proviso, which passed 33-7. Besides Rose, Sens. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg; Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson; Tom Davis, R-Beaufort; Shane Massey, R-Aiken; Mick Mulvaney, R-Lancaster; and Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, voted against tabling the motion.

The most recently amended 2009-10 budget for all state agencies, which was included when the House passed its 2010-11 budget version in March, adds $1 million in non-recurring reapportionment money to the Senate’s operating budget.

Compared to the amended budget, the Senate’s proposed 2010-11 budget for itself adds about $3.3 million for “unclassified positions” and an additional $835,000 for “other operating expenses,” though it doesn’t include any reapportionment money, budget documents show.

“It almost looks like a slush fund,” John Crangle, director of the government watchdog group Common Cause of South Carolina, told The Nerve last week about the Senate’s proposed raise for itself. “It would seem to me that Senate staff should have some explanation as to the purpose of the money.”

The Nerve last week sent written questions to McConnell; Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence; and two key Senate staffers asking for more details about the proposed budget increase for their chamber. None of them responded.

‘Fat-Free’ Budgeting

“All we’re doing is trying to keep this Senate about where it is,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday night. “There is no fat in this budget.”

McConnell said the Senate has been dealing with recent cuts to its own budget by drawing down its reserves, noting that “we have been through almost all of our reserves.” He cited two other factors why his chamber needs more money next fiscal year:

  • Reapportionment, or the redrawing of legislative district lines as a result of the new U.S. Census: “Every time we get sued,” McConnell, an attorney, said, adding that his chamber needs more computers, staff and “lawyers to represent us.”
  • Building repairs: McConnell said that based on some preliminary engineering tests, the Gressette Building, where senators’ offices are located, could need some “seismic” changes, noting, for example, that new walls “coming up five stories” might have to be built to strengthen the building.

McConnell contended that because about “98 percent of our costs are personnel,” any cuts to his chamber likely would result in reducing staff.

“We always try to hire the best people,” he said.

In an analysis of the state salary database published in February, The Nerve found that the Senate will spend slightly more than $4 million in $50,000-plus salaries for 56 staffers this fiscal year, while the 124-member House will spend $2.4 million in salaries for its 35 highest-earning employees.

The average top salaries in the Senate and House are $72,439 and $69,760, respectively.

Following are the salaries of Senate staffers earning at least $100,000 as of Aug. 17, according to the database:

  • Jeffrey Gossett, Senate clerk/research director – $148,511
  • Michael Shealy, budget director – $132,638
  • John Hazzard, counsel to McConnell – $132,107
  • Michael Hitchcock, assistant clerk/assistant research director – $131,046
  • Phil Lenski, senior staff attorney – $100,804
  • Lisa Nichols, senior budget analyst – $100,804

Longtime Sumter County Sen. Phil Leventis, a Democrat who sits on the Senate Finance Committee, toldThe Nerve on Friday that despite the proposed $3 million-plus hike for his chamber, “As a point of fact, there are no (large) increases in salaries; there are no increases in staff.”

“What is happening is that you’re taking existing staff and just nominal (pay) increases,” he said. “You’ve got to figure it takes well over $10 million or $11 million to operate the Senate.”

McConnell put current annual personnel costs for his chamber at $12.2 million.

Hefty Raises in Store?

But the proposed additional $3.3 million for “unclassified positions” would mean some hefty pay raises unless staff is added or the money is used for other purposes.

Budget documents show that the total authorized number of full-time Senate staff positions would remain at 143 for next fiscal year; the proposed additional $3.3 million works out to about $23,000 more per worker.

Les Boles, director of the Office of State Budget, earlier told The Nerve that this fiscal year’s amended budget for all state agencies doesn’t reflect the full 9.04 percent across-the-board general fund cuts imposed by the state Budget and Control Board.

Given that, the year-end budget for the Senate would stand at about $8.3 million, including the additional $1 million in non-recurring reapportionment money.

The Senate’s ratified budget for itself went from $9.6 million in fiscal year 1998 to $10.5 million in fiscal year 2001 before dropping to $8.7 million in fiscal year 2005, The Nerve’s review found.

But general fund appropriations steadily grew to $12.4 million and $12.2 million for the start of the fiscal 2008 and 2009 fiscal years, though the chamber’s general fund budget for the start of this fiscal year was cut to about $8.4 million.

Although generous to itself for next fiscal year, the Senate wasn’t quite as charitable to the House. The Senate Finance Committee’s version keeps the other chamber’s proposed 2010-11 budget at $14.1 million, down about $1.4 million from this fiscal year’s most recently amended budget.

But the House at the start of this fiscal year received a nearly $4.3-million, or about a 115-percent, hike in “other operating expenses” compared to the fiscal year 2009 ratified budget, records show.

That brought the House’s total appropriated budget then to $16.1 million – its biggest ratified budget in at least the past 12 years, The Nerve’s review found.

“I didn’t hear a peep over here about it,” McConnell complained to his colleagues Thursday night.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, did not respond to written questions last week from The Nerve about that increase.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 779-5022, ext. 106, or rick@scpolicycouncil.com.