Senator Amenable to Keeping Joint Budget Hearings Law

January 11, 2013

Investigative Reports

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CalculatorLanguage that would strike an obscure state law currently being ignored by the General Assembly could be removed from a massive government restructuring bill, a state senator told The Nerve Thursday following a Senate panel hearing on the legislation.

Asked by The Nerve if he plans to amend S.22 to leave the statute in, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, said he would take it up at the Senate Judiciary subcommittee’s next scheduled hearing on Thursday.

“I can’t predict (whether it will stay or go) because I haven’t discussed it with the other members, but the more openness the better as far as I’m concerned,” Sheheen said. “I’d be fine with leaving it in, and hope to have some discussions on it next week.”

As written, Section 11-11-90 of the 1976 state code directs that both the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees hold joint public meetings on the governor’s budget within five days after the General Assembly receives it.

In practice that has not happened in anyone’s memory, with many legislators admitting they weren’t even aware of it until The Nerve first reported on the little-known code in 2011.

In the time since, lawmakers apparently have taken notice; and the result is that crammed deep in the roughly 100-page S.C. Restructuring Act of 2013 (S.22) is a single sentence that reads, “Section 11-11-90 of the 1976 Code is repealed effective July 1, 2013.”

For governmental watchdogs such as Ashley Landess, president of the South Carolina Policy Council (the parent organization of The Nerve), repealing a law that’s been ignored by the Legislature for decades is not a solution to the problem, especially when the law was intended to allow citizens more say-so over how their tax money is spent.

“There is a practical reason for that law, and it is more public input into the state budget process,” Landess testified Thursday to the subcommittee comprised of Sheheen and Sens. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield; Tom Young, R-Aiken; and Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster. “The governor ought to write the state budget initially.

“The governor ought to outline spending priorities; the governor was elected statewide to do just that. Does it really make sense for legislative leaders who are not elected statewide to be determining (initial) statewide (spending) priorities? That’s not what they were sent to Columbia to do. The fact that some legislators don’t think (the law is) constitutional or don’t believe it’s practical or believe they’re addressing it other ways, none of that matters. It is state law.

“And frankly, you all know this and I think you wouldn’t disagree, it’s really not up to you to determine if a law is constitutional, nor is it up to you to decide if you want to follow it. The law is the law, and it has been ignored.”

Responding to Landess’ testimony, Sheheen said he’s willing to amend S.22, of which he and Sens. Massey and Larry Martin, R-Pickens, are sponsors, to keep the law on the books rather than repealing it.

“I’m fine with that statute,” Sheheen said at the hearing. “We can leave that statute if that causes a lot of concern for people because it doesn’t bother me one bit.”

Holding joint public hearings on the governor’s budget is part of the Policy Council’s eight-point reform agenda, which was released in May.

On the legal side, Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, sent a request to the S.C. Attorney General’s Office before Christmas for a formal opinion on whether the House and Senate had been breaking the law by failing to hold the joint hearings.

As of Monday, the request was still being worked on, with no timetable available for its completion, according to Mark Powell, spokesman for Attorney General Alan Wilson.

Reach Aiken at (803) 300-8809 or ron@thenerve.org