Secret Budget Process Continues in S.C. General Assembly

January 26, 2012

Investigative Reports

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The NerveIf you’re a policy wonk or had a really bad case of insomnia and read Gov. Nikki Haley’s 379-page proposed executive budget for next fiscal year, you might have noticed something odd on pages 298 and 299.

Unlike dozens of other state agencies and entities, neither the S.C. House of Representatives nor Senate filed fiscal year 2013 budget plans for themselves with the Office of State Budget. Haley specifically noted that in her proposed budget, which was unveiled on Jan. 13.

As pointed out previously by The Nerve, state law requires agencies to file proposed budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1, to the governor (now done through the Office of State Budget) by Nov. 1 of each year.

The 170-member General Assembly, however, apparently does not believe that 11-11-30 of the state code applies to itself, routinely revealing its proposed chamber budgets months after other state agencies have done so.

A state lawmaker on the House’s budget-writing committee acknowledged last week when contacted byThe Nerve that the normal budget-hearing process traditionally hasn’t been applied to House or Senate chamber budgets.

That gives legislative leaders the opportunity to slip in large budget increases for their chambers much later when public scrutiny typically has diminished.

The House, for example, on the last day for regular legislative business in June – when lawmakers typically are rushing to wrap up a long agenda of items – quietly slipped in a $2.3 million increase for itself for this fiscal year, The Nerve first reported then.

And the Senate in the prior fiscal year received a nearly $5 million annual  hike, which wasn’t first publicly proposed until more than three months after the General Assembly was in session.

The budget process in the Legislature starts with the House Ways and Means Committee, and then moves through the full House, Senate Finance Committee and the full Senate.

Any unresolved differences in budget versions typically are worked out in a conference committee made up of members of each chamber. A final budget version must be approved by both chambers before going to the governor for any possible vetoes.

Although plenty of state agencies will make budget presentations starting this month to various Ways and Means subcommittees, no proposed budgets for either the House or Senate chambers have been vetted before the three-member Legislative, Executive and Local Government Subcommittee, Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley and the subcommittee chairman, told The Nerve last week.

Merrill said his subcommittee doesn’t plan on holding any formal hearings on the chambers’ proposed budgets, as is typically done with other state agencies.

“It’s probably a little less formal than some of the other agencies,” Merrill said. “Generally, they (the Senate) will give us their budget, and we will give them ours. We generally don’t tamper with each others’ budgets.”

Merrill said he didn’t know when the proposed House chamber budget would be considered by his subcommittee, though he added he expects to receive it when his panel requests it.

The Nerve earlier this month in emails asked House Clerk Charles Reid and Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett for their respective chambers’ proposed FY 13 budgets but received no response. The Nerve last week sent follow-up requests under the S.C. Freedom of Information to Reid and Gossett for those documents but had not received any responses before publication of this story.

Under state law, public agencies have 15 business days to initially respond to an FOIA request.

The Nerve last week asked Haley’s office and Les Boles, director of the Office of State Budget, about whether the House and Senate were violating state law by not submitting their proposed budgets in advance. Neither office responded to written questions.

S.C. Budget and Control Board spokeswoman Lindsey Kremlick earlier told The Nerve in a written response that the chambers are not required to submit proposed budgets to the Office of State Budget, which is part of the BCB.

“The General Assembly is the legislative branch and is separate and distinct from the executive branch,” she said then.

The S.C. Constitution allows each chamber to “determine its rules of procedure,” though it doesn’t specifically address adopting chamber budgets.

Haley’s executive budget for next fiscal year proposes increases of $105,065 and $94,978 for the Senate and House, respectively, through increased employer contributions, which typically include retirement and health insurance contributions for employees.

But the governor’s proposed budget doesn’t include certain large pots of taxpayer money.

In recent years, for example, the House and Senate have carried over millions in unspent tax dollars annually, authorized through little-known state budget provisos passed by the Legislature.

The House, for example, carried over $5.8 million into this fiscal year; the Senate carried over $4 million, Office of State Budget records show.

Those amounts represent more than 30 percent of this fiscal year’s general fund appropriations of approximately $18.7 million for the House and $12.4 million for the Senate.

When those amounts are combined with general and “supplemental” appropriations, the House will have nearly $24.6 million to spend this year, according to OSB records. The Senate’s available funds total about $16.6 million.

To put how much tax dollars flow through House and Senate chambers into some perspective, the collective $31 million in general appropriations for the Legislature this fiscal year is larger than the total ratified budgets of at least 50 state agencies or divisions, OSB records show.

That list includes the S.C. Forestry Commission ($25.08 million), Commission on Indigent Defense ($24.17 million), University of South Carolina – Beaufort campus ($22.35 million), S.C. Educational Television ($19.73 million) and the Attorney General’s Office ($18.18 million).

A good chunk of the budgets for the House and Senate chambers is spent on staff salaries. As of August, 89 staffers in both chambers earned at least $50,000 annually, according to a state salary database.

Gossett and Reid are the top-paid employees, receiving $148,511 and $144,922, respectively, per year, records show.

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