Senate Budget Debate Could Move into Third Week

May 23, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Expect DelaysThe S.C. Senate is running out of time.

During Wednesday’s floor debate on the state budget for next fiscal year, which starts July 1, the Republican majority learned the budget debate could extend into a third week.

“Between now and next week, you will see us with many, many more amendments,” Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said early Wednesday afternoon during the Senate’s sixth day of debate on the 2013-14 budget.

The Senate adjourned for the day about 8:30 p.m. without passing a budget. The regular legislative session ends June 6.

Lawmakers have proposed a total fiscal 2014 budget of $22.7 billion, though if passed as written, it actually would be at least $24.2 billion because the Department of Social Services is not counting $1.5 billion in federal food-stamp assistance payments as part of its budget, as The Nerve first reported in March.

Senate budget debate started May 13, more than four months after the session started, and two months after the House completed third reading on its version of the budget.

Both chambers, however, could use some lessons in time management, critics say.

For starters, the House and the Senate ignore state law that requires the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees to hold joint public hearings within five days of when the proposed executive budget for the upcoming fiscal year, now prepared by the governor, is submitted to the General Assembly. If lawmakers complied with that, budget-writing panels in both chambers would have started hearings by Jan. 23 at the latest.

The South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, last year recommended the joint budget hearings as part of its eight-point reform agenda.

Jackson’s revelation came after earlier comments by Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who tried to persuade colleagues to give a second reading of the budget Wednesday so the Senate can move on to unfinished business with seven standard meeting days remaining in the regular legislative session. Martin said a budget without a second reading on Wednesday would mean the budget doesn’t receive a third reading until next week.

Two bills of interest are the ethics-reform bill (H. 3945) and the bill that would create a Department of Administration while maintaining some version of the current Budget and Control Board (S. 22). The BCB is comprised of the governor, treasurer, comptroller general and the chairmen of the House Ways and Means and Finance committees.

Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, placed a “minority report” on H. 3945, which put the ethics bill at the bottom of the Senate calendar. Early Wednesday, Malloy asked for Senate consent to remove the minority report, allowing for quicker debate on the bill.

But Martin said the Senate must finish the budget, noting, “Let’s take care of first things first.”

As the Senate debated an amendment late Wednesday morning about allocating more money to purchase new school buses, Martin pleaded with his colleagues to finish the budget.

“We’ve got other issues to deal with,” Martin said just before the Senate recessed for lunch. “Let’s get through them (the budget amendments) without any long-winded, extraneous debates.”

But consider the ways how the Senate failed to display urgency on the budget Wednesday:

  • Six lawmakers, both Republicans and a Democrat, made speeches as an “expression of personal interest” – as described in Senate rules – that centered on the debate over funding roads and bridges. The speeches took about an hour of time Wednesday morning;
  • The post-lunch session was supposed to be start at 1 p.m., but it did not resume until 1:30 p.m.;
  • By mid-afternoon there were six interruptions of Senate debate that could have moved the budget debate along, including an introduction for the doctor of the day, reading a resolution that recognized the death of a Columbia resident, and three separate introductions that recognized people in the gallery. Malloy introduced friends visiting from Darlington, which included a reference to a farm that has “the best peaches in South Carolina.” Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee and the Senate majority leader, made two of those introductions; and
  • Once the Senate resumed following lunch, it took a quick vote and had a couple of amendments withdrawn. Then there was brief confusion between the Senate clerk and Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, about the status of one of his amendments.

The Nerve reported in March about how the House and Senate typically waste time during their three regular meeting days – Tuesdays through Thursdays – each week.

The Senate finally got around to debating a big issue of the day – an amendment by Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, proposing school-choice tax breaks – at about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.

The S.C. Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) reported Grooms’ plan, detailed in bill S. 279, would result in a cost of $39 million to the budget. The state would grant tax deductions to parents who currently have children attending something other than a local public school. The deductions would include:

  • $4,000 a year to send their children to private schools;
  • $2,000 a year if their children are home schooled; and
  • $1,000 a year for their children to attend a school for which they are not zoned.

His proposal, which is not a line item in the Senate Finance Committee’s version of the state budget, also would grant tax credits to people who contribute to a scholarship-granting organization that would distribute tuition grants to children from needy families.

The amendment failed early Wednesday evening on a vote of 23-18, with nine Republicans voting with Senate Democrats.

While budget debate in the Senate is dragging along, the 46-member chamber can move much faster when it so desires.

Consider S. 578, the bill that will commit S.C. taxpayers to repaying $120 million in state bonds, with interest, which will allow the Boeing Co. to expand its presence in North Charleston. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and the Senate Finance Committee chairman, was signed by Gov. Nikki Haley and became law on April 23 – just two weeks after it was introduced on the Senate floor.

The Senate Finance Committee approved the bill the day after it was introduced on April 9, bypassing the typical subcommittee process. The full Senate gave second reading to the bill on the same day and sent it on to the House the next. The House gave its final approval to the bill just a week later.

Ironically, Leatherman is the sponsor of a joint resolution (S. 705) that would keep state government operating if a budget is not in place by July 1. That legislation, which was approved Wednesday by Senate Finance, is now in the line of others in the Senate as the budget debate continues.

Olson can be reached at (803) 254-4411 or curt@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_curt and @olson_curt. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.