Senators Propose Eliminating Joint Budget Hearings; Legal Opinion Sought

December 20, 2012

Investigative Reports

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Closed SignBuried near the bottom of a roughly 100-page S.C. Senate bill that would create a state Department of Administration is a seemingly harmless sentence that reads, “Section 11-11-90 of the 1976 Code is repealed effective July 1, 2013.”

That law requires the budget-writing House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees to hold joint public hearings on the governor’s budget, beginning within five days after the executive spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year is submitted to the General Assembly.

The idea behind the joint hearings is to allow the public to get an early comprehensive look at how their tax dollars – as proposed by the governor – will be spent.

Gov. Nikki Haley is expected today to release her proposed budget for fiscal 2014, which begins July 1. The Legislature reconvenes on Jan. 8.

But although the joint-hearings law has been on the books for decades, the 170-member General Assembly has summarily ignored it, instead diffusing the budget process through relatively small subcommittees that often garner little public scrutiny.

So why, then, do three senators – Larry Martin, R-Pickens; Shane Massey, R-Edgefield; and Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw – now want to do away with the law that the Legislature has been flouting – without repercussions – anyway?

The language to repeal the joint-hearings law is contained in a bill (S. 22) sponsored by Martin, Massey and Sheheen, and prefiled last week. It was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Martin.

Contacted Wednesday by The Nerve, Martin, the former Senate Rules Committee chairman, initially said it wasn’t his idea to repeal the law, though he supports the move.

“It appears to be an antiquated provision,” he said. “We don’t do that. We’ve never done it. Why have a statute requiring us to do it?”

And, he also pointed out, “What’s the punishment going to be for not doing it?”

Martin initially said he didn’t know whether Massey or Sheheen – the lead sponsor of the bill – was behind the proposal to repeal the joint-hearings law. He later contacted The Nerve and said it was done by a Senate research lawyer who was just trying to comply with a main purpose of the bill – to “eliminate every reference to the (S.C.) Budget and Control Board.”

“There was no deleterious motive in mind,” Martin said. “He had no grudge or ax to grind with anybody.”

Efforts Wednesday to reach Sheheen, an attorney who lost to Haley in the 2010 gubernatorial election, and Massey, also a lawyer, were unsuccessful. Haley and her chief spokesman, Rob Godfrey, did not respond to written and phone messages left for them Wednesday by The Nerve.

Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort wants the state’s chief lawyer – Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson – to issue a formal legal opinion on whether the Senate and House have violated state law by not holding joint public budget hearings.

“I think it is in violation of state law,” Davis, an attorney, said when contacted Wednesday by The Nerve.

Davis provided The Nerve with a copy of his letter requesting the opinion, which he said he mailed earlier Wednesday to the Attorney General’s Office.

“Further, in the event you find the budget process in practice does not comply with the budget process that is mandated by law,” Davis wrote to Wilson, “I ask that you identify the specific areas in which it fails to comply and opine as to who has the duty to ensure the laws are fully and properly discharged, and the manner in which that duty ought to be discharged.”

Davis, who was named last week to the Senate Finance Committee, said he hopes Wilson will provide a written opinion within “a couple weeks,” given certain budget deadlines as established by state law.

The law, for example, requires the governor to submit an executive budget to the General Assembly within five days after the beginning of the legislative session. S.C. Code of Laws Section 11-11-90, which Martin, Massey and Sheheen have proposed repealing, requires the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees to hold joint public hearings on the governor’s budget within five days after it has been submitted.

But because “this statutory budgeting procedure is ignored,” Davis wrote in his letter to Wilson, there is “never any consideration of the Governor’s budget as a whole, by the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee sitting jointly in open sessions.”

Davis also said in his letter that although another law requires the governor to submit, and the Legislature to consider, a budget consisting of a “complete and itemized plan of all proposed expenditures,” less than half of “state-government expenditures actually gets any executive or legislative scrutiny.”

Davis, who was former Gov. Mark Sanford’s chief of staff, told The Nerve that although Sanford’s proposed state budgets were very detailed, the “running joke among senior House leaders and senior Senate leaders was that they made excellent door stops.”

“To me, that’s sad,” said Davis, who has served in the Senate since 2009. “That shows absolute contempt for the law.”

Instead of having a comprehensive review of the budget at the beginning of the process with joint public hearings by the Legislature’s budget-writing committees, as required bystate law, the budget is “divided up in many different pieces and directed to subcommittees,” he said.

“What you end up with is very narrow interest groups coming in to talk to the subcommittees,” Davis said, adding, “By splintering the process and fragmenting it, you really don’t give the people of South Carolina the biggest bang for their buck.”

Martin, who has served in the House and Senate a total of about 34 years, said the state constitution doesn’t allow a proposed budget considered jointly by the budget-writing committees to be reported out simultaneously to the two chambers, noting that the constitution requires that the legislative budget process start in the House before proceeding to the Senate.

“What that statute (11-11-90) contemplates is a unicameral legislature that doesn’t exist,” Martin said.

He also said the joint-hearings law “doesn’t require us to accomplish anything.”

Contacted Wednesday, Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson and the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, sided with Martin, telling The Nerve, “I think the statute is old, and the constitution trumps statute.”

Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and the Senate Finance Committee chairman, did not respond to written and phone messages left for him Wednesday by The Nerve.

Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, told The Nerve on Wednesday that he supports Davis’ request for an attorney general’s opinion.

“If they concede that it is the law, then it needs to be followed,” he said.

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