School Yard Bullies in S.C. General Assembly

July 20, 2010

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The NerveWhen it comes to funding county legislation delegation budgets, state law allows the S.C. General Assembly to act like a school yard bully trying to squeeze lunch money out of his hapless victim.

And the bullying could get worse this fiscal year under a state budget proviso change, in addition to declining state funding to counties.

Since 1975, state law (Act 283, Section 3) requires counties to provide office space and pay office operating costs, including staff salaries, for state lawmakers in their respective counties. Under the law, the delegation gets to approve its budget, and hire and fire the delegation staff.

In recent years, a state budget proviso, which has to be renewed annually, required counties to fund delegation budgets at fiscal 2003-04 levels. But the General Assembly stripped out that provision for this fiscal year, which started July 1, and inserted language referring to the 1975 law, which means, theoretically, there is no spending cap.

And to let counties know they mean business, lawmakers kept in language in the proviso (86.6) to penalize counties should delegation funding requests be ignored.

For starters, the state would reduce a county’s state Aid to Subdivisions allocation by the corresponding amount of the delegation budget.  And, on top of that, the remaining allocation would be reduced by 25 percent of the shortfall amount, the proceeds of which would be used by the delegation for its “administrative costs.”

State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston and the county’s delegation chairman, doesn’t see a problem with the proviso or law.

“The money we get pales in comparison to Aid to Subdivisions money that comes back to the county,” he told The Nerve last week. “Most House members do not have a lot of staff in Columbia.”

In vetoing last year’s proviso, Gov. Mark Sanford said it was “an affront to the principle of home rule.”

“This administration has consistently argued that the government that is best is the one closest to the people,” he wrote in his veto message. “This proviso violates this principle by having the state Legislature mandate that county governments fund their state legislative delegations even if the counties either do not have the resources to provide proper funding or do not think that funding their legislative delegation is a priority, especially when their budgets have already been cut significantly.”

“If legislators think their county delegations deserve funding,” Sanford continued, “then they should find the funds without putting the funding obligations on the backs of county governments.”

Not surprisingly, the General Assembly overrode Sanford’s veto.

The Nerve last week asked the Legislature’s top two budget writers – Senate Finance Committee Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson –about why the proviso language was changed for this fiscal year, and, more generally, why state lawmakers felt it necessary to force counties to pay for their in-district expenses.

Neither lawmaker responded to the written questions.

Lawmakers over the past several years have dramatically reduced state aid to counties as part of general fund budget cuts. This fiscal year, for example, that amount was set at $216.5 million, a nearly $28 million, or 11 percent, decrease from the 2009-10 ratified budget.

Meanwhile, the 46-member Senate increased its own general fund budget for 2010-11 by nearly $4 million, a 46-percent hike from last fiscal year’s ratified budget. And that increase doesn’t include an additional $1 million earmarked for the redrawing of legislative district lines, giving the Senate its biggest budget in at least the past 12 years, The Nerve reported earlier.

The Nerve reported last week about a number of state-funded perks senators and House members receive. The extras include $12,000 annually for in-district expenses, most of which, according to John Crangle, director of Common Cause of South Carolina, typically is pocketed by lawmakers. The expense reimbursements are in addition to legislators’ annual $10,400 salaries.

“It Runs the Gamut”

How much counties statewide are collectively doling out to fund state legislative delegation budgets is unclear. The South Carolina Association of Counties, for example, doesn’t track it, said Robert Croom, the association’s deputy general counsel.

“It runs the gamut,” Croom told The Nerve last week. “In some of them, it’s next to nothing, and in some delegations, it’s a lot of money.” He added, though, he “be surprised” if any delegation budgets are “extravagant.”

Croom said he didn’t know which lawmaker pushed for the change in the budget proviso language for this fiscal year.

In Charleston County, this fiscal year’s approved county-funded delegation budget is $178,207, compared to last fiscal year’s adjusted budget of $176,357, and $172,596 and $165,854 in fiscal years 2009 and 2008, respectively, according to county records provided last week to The Nerve.

Most of the budget goes for salaries and benefits for three staff members, who work out of an office in North Charleston City Hall.

Cathy Collum, who has been on the delegation staff for 15 years, the last three as its coordinator, told The Nerve last week that the 21-member county delegation, which she noted was the state’s largest, doesn’t dictate its budget to her. Two of the delegation members – Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell and House Speaker Bobby Harrell, both Republicans – are arguably the two most powerful lawmakers in the state.

“I prepare the budget, and we submit it to the (county) Budget Review Committee,” Collum said. “Then it’s previewed at a full delegation meeting.”

She said a majority of the delegation must approve the budget, adding, “Our budget doesn’t change much from year to year.”

County records show the delegation’s budget has increase by about 7.5 percent since fiscal year 2008.

Collum said while delegation members have had questions or made suggestions about budgets she prepared, they have not rejected them outright. She added that although the delegation approved her hiring as the delegation coordinator, the county sets her salary, which, according to county records, is $50,835 annually.

“The bottom line is, for what the people get, it’s a pretty-well run office,” said Limehouse, the delegation chairman, adding, “We do a lot of work for Dorchester County and some things for Berkeley County, too.”

Unlike Charleston County, many counties, particularly smaller ones, do not have delegation offices.  The exact number, however, is unclear:  S.C. Secretary of State’s office records list telephone numbers or street addresses for 23 county delegations.

Collum said it was her understanding that under state law, counties without delegation offices and staffs could provide funding to individual lawmakers within their counties for in-district expenses.  Limehouse said those lawmakers receive “a little stipend,” though he didn’t know the exact amount.

That was news to Edgefield County Finance Director Lynn Strom when contacted last week by The Nerve.

Strom said her small county does not have a delegation office, and that she has no knowledge of any county funds going to the county’s three delegation members – Republican Sen. Shane Massey and Reps. Bill Clyburn, a Democrat, and Don Smith, a Republican.

“It may be that they (the state) are automatically deducting it from our Aid to Subdivisions money,” she said, though she quickly added that if it has been done, she received no notification of it.

Secretary of State’s office records list the same Aiken address and phone number for both the Edgefield and Aiken delegations. Contacted last week by The Nerve, a woman who identified herself as the Aiken County delegation program manager referred all questions to Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken  and the county delegation chairman.

Smith told The Nerve that Massey, Clyburn and Don Smith also are members of the nine-member Aiken County delegation. But he said other than processing notary applications for Edgefield County residents, the Aiken delegation office does little other constituent work for Edgefield County.

“That’s volunteering on our part,” Smith said. “The delegation office receives no compensation whatsoever from Edgefield County.”

Delegation Duties

In Richland County, the county approved $177,084 for it 15-member legislative delegation for this fiscal year, said Jennifer Dowden, the county’s senior public information officer. Since fiscal 2008, its budget has increased by 8.7 percent, county records show.

The executive director of the delegation office, located in the Richland County Judicial Center in Columbia, is James Brown, who also heads the county’s Veteran’s Affairs Office. Brown earns $60,716 annually, according to a Midlands salary database of public employees earning at least $50,000 a year.

“I’m unique from the others,” Brown said when contacted last week by The Nerve. “I wear several hats.”

Brown said he has been the delegation director for about 10 years and head of the Veteran’s Affairs Office for about 15 years. He said the delegation appointed him to both positions in separate two-year terms.

Brown said he has two staff members, one who handles delegation matters and the other, veterans’ issues. Specifically, he said the delegation duties include:

  • Responding to constituents’ questions and requests;
  • Processing notary applications;
  • Managing applications for delegation appointments to more than a dozen boards and commissions; and
  • Providing minutes of board and commission meetings to delegation members.

“If there’s an issue that comes up, we make sure we deal with it,” he said.Although state law gives a legislative delegation the authority to approve its own county-funded budget, Brown said the Richland County delegation is “not involved” with setting its budget.

“We’re just like every other department in the county,” Brown said. “They (the county administration) give us a base budget. Then we submit our (proposed) budget. We go through the budget process like everyone else.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@scpolicycouncil.com.