Shorter Legislative Session Lacks Action, Not Support

September 11, 2012

Investigative Reports

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StatehouseThe 2012 session of the General Assembly, already one of the lengthiest in the nation, ran even longer than usual, with legislators finally wrapping it up in July instead of the typical June closeout.

As in years past, myriad proposals to shorten the legislative session were introduced this go-round.

And, likewise maintaining a pattern, at least one of the measures made some headway, though none of them actually passed.

That’s been the story pretty much across the board in the past few years when it comes to reform proposals in the Legislature. (The Nerve recently reported on other examples here and here.)

Indeed, ideas to change things for the better haven’t been elusive – they’ve been blowing in the wind.

Take legislative time management, for instance.

“We could get a whole lot more done if we used our time wisely,” says Rep. Deborah Long, R-Lancaster.

In April 2011, Long introduced a bill to shave two weeks off the session. Four representatives, including House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, co-sponsored Long’s bill, H. 4145.

The House passed the measure in about a week and sent it to the Senate, where it was shipped to that chamber’s Judiciary Committee – and went nowhere quietly into the night.

Under Article 3, Section 9 of the S.C. Constitution, the Legislature convenes on the second Tuesday in January every year.

But the constitution does not dictate when the session ends. Rather, that is set forth in Section 2-1-180 of state law – as the first Thursday in June, unless both the House and Senate vote by two-thirds to meet longer.

“Measured in terms of months, South Carolina has the longest session in the Southeast (tied for 1st with Tennessee) and the 6th longest (tied with 7 other states) in the country,” says a study by The Nerve’sparent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council.

Shortening the session is part of an eight-point reform agenda the Policy Council is advocating to overhaul state government. (Read more about the group’s reform agenda here.)

Long’s bill was but one of at least six proposals introduced between 2011 and 2012 to shorten the legislative session.

Some of them were much more aggressive than Long’s.

Republican Sens. Greg Ryberg of Aiken County and Mike Rose of Dorchester County floated – albeit not until April – S. 1456, which called for cutting the session by nearly three months in even-numbered years and by almost two months in odd-numbered years.

The Ryberg-Rose measure also would have instituted two-year state budgets instead of the current one-year spending plans.

A shorter session enjoys bipartisan support, too.

That was manifest in the co-sponsors of Long’s bill, with a Democrat joining the others, who were Republicans.

In addition, Rep. James Smith, a Democrat from Richland County, introduced a bill in March 2011 to reduce the session by a month. Smith’s proposal, H. 3889, also would have eliminated the Legislature’s authority to extend the session by a two-thirds vote of both chambers.

The House never acted on Smith’s bill.

Efforts to reach Ryberg and Smith last week were unsuccessful.

So, with plenty of options to choose from and support from members of both parties, why the resistance to shortening the session?

“People do not like change,” says Long, an optometrist and relative newcomer to the Legislature, having served in the House since just 2009.

Long says the fate of her bill was a foregone conclusion even though it was comparatively limited in scope. “I was already told by people this wasn’t going anywhere in the Senate,” she says.

On the latter point, she adds, “Call it baby steps.”

Through a partnership with South Carolina Educational Television, the Legislature live-streams the session in both chambers online.

For folks engaged enough to look in on those proceedings, virtually or in person, it’s not long before a certain pattern emerges. Call it constituent service, frivolity, or something else, it’s when legislators, instead of working on ethics reform and budget transparency and the like, spend their time doing other things.

Things like memorializing Congress, congratulating high school sports teams, and debating state symbols.

“Well, I was just bemoaning the fact that I felt like we wasted so much time down there,” Long said when first asked about her bill.

Long likens the duration of the session to having 30 minutes to get ready to go somewhere versus 45 minutes. “If you’ve got 45,” she says, “you’ll take 45.”

On that note, there’s no need to make this story, um, longer than it has to be.

Photo by Nerve intern Ashley Hinkel.