Senate Passes DOT Transparency Bill

March 6, 2012

Investigative Reports

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StatisticsRegardless of whether politics get driven out of highway spending in South Carolina this year, some sunlight could be coming to show how the state’s road construction dollars are expended.

A bill to require the S.C. Department of Transportation to create and maintain an online database of all expenditures by the agency is halfway through the General Assembly.

For each transaction, the database would feature the amount and source of funds, the name of the payee and a description of the expenditure. “The register must be searchable and updated at least once a month,” the bill says.

The Senate passed the bill, S. 1007, last week and it’s now pending in the House.

To clear either chamber a bill must receive three affirmative votes, or readings. In the Senate on second reading, the most crucial of the three, members of the chamber approved the DOT transparency bill 43-0, with just three of the Senate’s 46 members not voting.

Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, is sponsoring the bill.

In the 2011 legislative session, after two years of previously unfruitful efforts, Rose succeeded in the passage of legislation he authored requiring state-supported colleges and universities to post online spending registers.

“So having worked through all of that,” Rose says, “it’s an easy transition to applying those same principles for the same reasons to DOT; in fact, even more so.”

Why the emphasis on the transportation agency?

“We (legislators) are well aware, through the media, of cash-flow problems with DOT – shortages of money,” Rose says.

Indeed, the Department of Transportation has been under intense scrutiny since reports began surfacing in August about the agency running low on funds. The shortage resulted in late payments on construction loans and overdue amounts owed to contractors.

The department sought a $52 million advance from the federal government to help get caught up on its bills.

On the heels of that crisis, bills were introduced in both the House and Senate to reform the DOT. Those measures seek to abolish a seven-member commission that oversees the department’s infrastructure spending.

A secretary in the governor’s cabinet runs the agency day to day. But it’s the commission, six of whose members are elected by legislators, that controls the department’s road-building money.

Critics contend the commission is rife with political decision-making in that regard.

Rose says his bill could help the DOT secretary get a handle on the money in an agency with “billions of dollars sloshing around” in it. “This helps the director know how they’re spending their money and where they’re spending it.”

The bill also would help drive down DOT’s costs by fostering better competition among the department’s vendors, Rose says.

And it would give the public a way to scrutinize the agency, he says. “This is the key to cutting back on waste, fraud and abuse,” Rose says. “The best disinfectant is sunlight.”

In an email, DOT spokesman Pete Poore said the department “does not oppose this bill.”

“Most of the information that is required by the bill is already posted in some form on the Comptroller General’s transparency website,” Poore said.

The bill gives the DOT one year to implement it.

“SCDOT worked with the Senate Transportation Committee to get the implementation date of one year, only because we are still learning the reporting components of SCEIS (the statewide accounting system),” Poore said. “We do not anticipate that it will take a year, but a target date can’t be given at this point.”

It would not cost the department anything to comply with the bill, according to Poore.

In the House, the bill was sent to the Education and Public Works Committee.

Rep. Phil Owens, R-Pickens and chairman of the committee, says he supports transparency in all aspects of government.

Owens says he has not looked at the details of Rose’s bill but is familiar with it conceptually. Once he has a command of it specifically, Owens says, “I would imagine we would work to move this bill forward.”

Rose says he plans to ask Owens to do just that this week.

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