Senate Faces Choice on Dept. of Administration: True Change or Fig-Leaf Reform

January 27, 2012

Investigative Reports

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The NerveAlthough myriad ifs, ands or buts could derail it, a full-on elimination of the Budget and Control Board is in the works in the S.C. General Assembly.

On Tuesday, the Senate plans to resume debating a bill that would abolish the Budget and Control Board (BCB) and create an executive branch Department of Administration in its place.

The bill represents the most far-reaching attempt to make state government more efficient and accountable since the late former Gov. Carroll Campbell, a Republican, successfully pushed for restructuring while serving as the state’s chief executive from 1987 to 1995.

Arguably the biggest question about the bill though is not whether it will pass (it needs just one more affirmative vote from the Senate to do so), but how far it will go toward true change versus fig-leaf reform.

“I think that’s a good assessment,” says Sen. Tom Davis, a Republican from Beaufort County who is working closely on details of the bill, “and there’s going to be another episode in this drama – the empire strikes back.”

Davis uses that Star Wars metaphor in reference to forces fighting to protect the status quo.

Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, vigorously stepped into that role as the Senate debated the bill Thursday. “First of all you’ve got to convince me that something’s wrong with the current system,” Ford said of his support for the chamber moving forward on the matter.

In its current form, the legislation preserves elements of the Budget and Control Board but in a new configuration; or, as Republican Sen. Chip Campsen of Charleston County described it on the Senate floor Wednesday – “BCB light.”

But Davis and Sens. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, and Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, are drafting an amendment to the bill that would deep-six the BCB altogether.

“It literally cuts the head off of the Budget and Control Board,” Massey says. “I mean it completely gets rid of it.”

That this reform effort is deeply bipartisan shows in the senatorial trio’s amendment. It also shows in an earlier unanimous vote by the Senate that brought the bill to the point it is now of actually doing away with the BCB.

“Well, it’s not a partisan thing,” Davis says. “It’s a good-government thing.”

And it’s neither conservative or liberal nor Democratic or Republican, Davis says in underscoring the point.

Rather, he says, it’s about separate, clearly defined powers of government.

The Budget and Control Board is pretty much unique to South Carolina. It consists of two entities: an administrative agency, which runs many day-to-day functions of state government, and a five-member panel, which wields vast authority over state spending and related matters.

The five members of the BCB board are the governor, treasurer, comptroller general and the chairmen of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees. That’s three constitutional officers from the executive branch and two lawmakers from the legislative branch.

For decades, critics have pilloried the BCB as an unconstitutional, unaccountable mingling of the executive and legislative branches that fosters dysfunction in state government.

But lo these many years, it was former two-term Gov. Mark Sanford who pushed, pulled and prodded this issue to the fore of political consideration.

In addition to letting forth a rhetorical drumbeat against the BCB throughout his administration, Sanford supported an S.C. Supreme Court lawsuit in his second term that sought to dissolve the Budget and Control Board. The case challenged the constitutionality of the BCB’s mixed makeup of two branches.

The Supreme Court summarily threw out the suit, but the case brought much attention to the issue.

Gov. Nikki Haley, meanwhile, has taken up the proverbial mantle. As Sanford did, Haley is championing elimination of the BCB and creation of a cabinet-level Department of Administration in place of it.

Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, is lead sponsor of the bill on the cusp of passing that would achieve those ends, H. 3066.

The House passed the bill last year, but in a form that kept much of the BCB intact.

Thus, when the legislation came to the Senate floor in that design, members of the chamber unanimously amended it at the end of the 2011 legislative session.

That amendment completely retooled the bill, creating a Department of Administration in the governor’s cabinet and nixing the Budget and Control Board.

At the same time, however, the amended bill would create something akin to the BCB board dubbed the State Financial Affairs Authority. And that entity would exercise powers similar to the BCB panel, such as authorizing state agencies to run a deficit.

That’s the version of the bill awaiting a final “yes” vote from the Senate to pass.

But the senators who have taken the lead on the issue in their chamber – Davis, Massey and Sheheen – have thought better of it. Instead of the bill in its current structure, they are working up an amendment to go all the way and dismantle the BCB without any kind of substitute for it.

“I don’t want to start with a document that has that State Financial Affairs Authority in it,” Davis says. “I think that’s Budget and Control Board light.”

Senators could decide the fate of the Davis-Massey-Sheheen amendment on Tuesday, when they are scheduled to reconvene at 12 p.m.

Under the three senators’ proposal, state procurement functions would move to a Department of Administration, while deficit authorization would be within the purview of the Legislature.

But the trio does not address oversight and management of the state retirement system, one of the BCB’s most important and most sensitive roles.

“It is the sticking point,” Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, said on the Senate floor Thursday.

Regardless, don’t look for the Senate to dispense with the bill quickly.

“It’s going to take us awhile to make sure we get it right,” Massey says.

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.