Shorter Legislative Sessions Would Save Taxpayers $420,000-Plus Yearly, Budget Office Says

March 25, 2013

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

SC StatehouseThe Office of State Budget has concluded an amended Senate bill that would shorten legislative sessions by one month would generate a recurring savings to South Carolina taxpayers of more than $420,000.

S. 330, sponsored by Sen. John Courson, R-Richland and the Senate president pro tempore, would move the last day of the General Assembly’s annual regular session to the first Thursday in May, from the first Thursday in June. It also would create a new deadline of March 15 for the House to have its third reading of the new state budget, sooner than the current March 31.

A Senate Judiciary subcommittee Thursday amended that from Courson’s March 1 recommendation.

“The House of Representatives reports that this bill would result in a savings to the general fund of approximately $312,000. Additionally, the Senate indicates a general fund savings of approximately $112,082,” according to a fiscal impact statement prepared by the Office of State Budget (OSB).

The House and Senate this week and next will be on furlough, saving taxpayers an estimated $146,000, the Associated Press reported. If that amount is added yearly to the OSB’s projection, the total annual estimated savings would climb to more than $570,000.

Officials derive the savings to taxpayers on money not paid to the 170 lawmakers for “subsistence” – $131 a day for lodging and meals during session days – and car-mileage reimbursements to travel to Columbia for state business. The Legislature typically meets Tuesdays through Thursdays starting the second Tuesday in January.

Shortening the legislative session is part of an eight-point reform agenda of the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve.

Another proposal, H. 3340, sponsored Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville and the House majority leader, also is aimed at shortening sessions, though it would require a statewide vote to amend the S.C. Constitution, The Nerve reported in January. The general resolution passed the House on Feb. 7 and was referred to the Senate Judiciary subcommittee that approved S. 330 last week.

Courson did not attend the subcommittee hearing to speak on his bill, which has four co-sponsors. Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston and the subcommittee chairman, and another subcommittee member, Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, added a subcommittee proxy vote by Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, to pass the amended S. 330 to the full Senate Judiciary Committee.

The subcommittee carried over H. 3340, which passed the House on second reading by a 91-9 vote.

Campsen said a problem with the House proposal is that it does not have automatic extensions related to the budget, adding that lawmakers could adjourn without passing a budget.

“I don’t think we’d (the General Assembly) adjourn without a budget,” Massey responded. “I think they’d (the House and Senate leaders) just rush a budget through.”

Under H. 3340, annual sessions would not begin officially until the second Tuesday in February – a month later than the current start date – though legislative committees could start meeting on the second Tuesday in January.

“For me, I like that idea,” Massey said. “For those of us who actually work, it is extremely frustrating to sit up here for a month or two month and just twiddle your thumbs. We just need to have the resolve to chill out for a month and do the committee work.”

“Senator (Massey), I have advocated doing this time and again to no avail,” Campsen added.

After the House passed H. 3340, House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, pointed the finger at the Senate for the General Assembly’s failure to shorten legislative sessions.

“Running from January to June, South Carolina has one of the longest legislative sessions in the country,” Harrell said in a prepared statement. “Although nine such session-shortening measures have previously passed the House, none have emerged from the Senate to become law.”

But Massey took a shot at the House during Thursday’s subcommittee hearing.

The House uses the state Board of Economic Advisors’ February estimate of general-fund revenues for the upcoming fiscal year to set its version of the annual state budget. Campsen and Massey discussed the possibility of changing dates for BEA estimates.

“If the House is going to debate the budget for two days, they don’t have to do a lot of work,” Massey said of the House’s debate March 11 and 12 on the proposed 2013-14 state budget.

The two senators also discussed a couple of other ideas related to session length.

“I think it’s even reasonable and prudent to treat the first year of a session differently than you treat the second year of a session,” Massey said.

Campsen said after a newly elected Legislature is sworn in, it could require at least a month of committee work to assist freshmen lawmakers. In the second year of a two-year cycle, lawmakers likely would have work to do immediately because bills that weren’t acted on during the prior year automatically are carried over, the senators said.

Campsen also said more work could get done earlier if the Senate Invitations Committee would hold off on scheduling receptions for lawmakers until late January or February.

Olson can be reached at (803) 254-4411 or curt@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_curt and @olson_curt. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.