Should S.C. Cut Legislative Session Length?

July 29, 2010

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The NerveShould South Carolina shorten its legislative session?

The issue has been debated off and on for years, in the state’s political, governmental and other circles. But the question does not lend itself to an easy answer.

On the one hand, a shorter session would provide state lawmakers with less time to cause trouble, whether in spending wastefully, treading on individual rights or other actions critics of one stripe or another love to hate about the General Assembly.

“If they’re in town less they have less opportunity to do mischief,” says Mark Tompkins, an associate professor of political science at the University of South Carolina’s Columbia campus.

On the other hand, the state budget, tax policy and many other issues legislators deal with are not exactly the sorts of things that can be deciphered over a single power lunch.

“There is an argument to be made that (they) ought to be paying more attention, not less attention,” Tompkins says.

Examples of both sides of the coin abound in the Palmetto State, some of which, when it comes to the first half of the equation, run to the far side of the sausage-making factory that is the State House – the weird, wacky or otherwise way-out-there side.

There are other points to consider about the length of the legislative session, too, such as the amount of money it costs taxpayers.

As to the specifics of how much time lawmakers spend in session here, it would seem to be a lot compared to most other states that have a part-time legislature, as South Carolina does.

Prescribed in the state constitution, the session clock starts ticking each year on the second Tuesday in January. But the constitution does not set a time limit on the session.

Instead, state law requires legislators to wrap it up by 5 p.m. on the first Thursday in June, unless they vote by a two-thirds margin to extend the session, which they do with regularity.

Thus, South Carolina lawmakers spend about five months in session each year.

However, session days typically are only Tuesdays through Thursdays.

Still, relatively speaking, the Palmetto State’s session is a full month longer than the norm.

“For a part-time legislature, an average session length is 120 calendar days,” says Brenda Erickson, a senior research analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Based in Washington, D.C., the National Conference of State Legislatures tabulates session lengths on the organization’s website.

The Nerve interviewed Erickson in May for a story about one of those wacky instances of the goings-on at the Capitol: a bill, S. 1030, to designate the marsh tacky the official state heritage horse of South Carolina and name the mule the state’s official heritage work animal.

After much debate and against opposition by some lawmakers – Democratic Rep. Herb Kirsh of York told The Nerve he objected to the bill because he thinks the marsh tacky is a “crappy looking horse” – the General Assembly passed the measure late this session.

Gov. Mark Sanford signed it into law on June 11.

For an even zanier case of legislative tomfoolery, we wind the session clock back to the beginning.

It was late January, and a bitter, partisan, months-long debate about national health care reform was winding toward a conclusion in Congress.

Here at home, 26 state senators – more than half the members of the upper chamber of the Legislature, and all but two of them Republicans – had something to say about the issue.

For the record – like, the official, permanent, legislative record.

The senators had signed on to a joint resolution, S. 424, sponsored by their GOP colleague Lee Bright of Spartanburg to send a message from the General Assembly to Congress and President Obama.

At more than four pages long and no fewer than 1,629 words, the resolution excoriates the federal government for racking up multitrillion-dollar deficits, bailing out banks, propping up automakers and burdening the states with unfunded mandates.

Reform This

Specifically, the measure singles out health care reform and says South Carolina wants no part of it, especially any requirement that would compel the Palmetto State to increase its Medicaid spending or force its residents to buy medical insurance.

“Be it further resolved that the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina, by this resolution, affirms its support for the Second, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments to the United States Constitution,” the resolution says in part.

For a quick refresher, those amendments protect gun rights; individuals’ rights not explicitly named, such as privacy; and states’ rights, respectively.

Meaningless except symbolically, and arguably rooted in pandering and grandstanding, the resolution cleared the S.C. Senate on Jan. 19 and moved to the House.

That’s where overwhelmingly Republican foolishness morphed into mostly Democratic ridiculousness.

House members rumbled into a full-throated debate about the resolution on Jan. 28 and continued the back and forth on the next day of the session, Feb. 2. The chamber’s journal for those days reads like the script for a meth-induced episode of The People’s Court.

First, Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, moved to add the equal protection, anti-discriminatory 14th Amendment to the resolution.

Motion tabled.

Next, Democratic Rep. Chris Hart of Richland proposed amending S. 424 to add language urging the General Assembly “to focus its legislative efforts on job creation and reducing unemployment in South Carolina and desist from using its scarce resources in sending futile resolutions to the Congress of the United States.”

Amendment ruled out of order.

Then things really got weird.

Systematically, one after another, Democrat James Smith of Richland suggested supplementing the Legislature’s affirmation of constitutional safeguards with 10 additional amendments: the first, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, 15th, 19th and 26th.

Smith floated four of the amendments on Jan. 28 as the day’s business in the House was coming to a close, then picked it back up during the next installment of the session, Feb. 2, with the other six amendments.

All 10 of them were tabled, but not before Smith or another representative spoke in favor of each amendment.

Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.

In a statement in the House journal after the chamber adopted the resolution on Feb. 2, Sellers said in part, “It is very important to note that this was a resolution that has no impact on our nation or state.”

Perhaps most galling about Smith’s proposals: The House took roll-call votes on all of them, even as members of the chamber routinely decline to put their votes on the record in roll calls, and for unquestionably important matters at that – instead opting in those cases to go with voice votes that make it virtually impossible to verify where the members came down on those issues.

In one example of that practice, the House passed a bill this session – without roll-call votes on the second and third of three required readings – to open ethics investigations of statewide and locally elected officials to public disclosure.

Frivolities Aplenty

The resolution opposing health care reform, passed in March, was not the first Republican-backed message of defiance to Congress on behalf of the Legislature.

Said House Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-Calhoun, to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, during debate this session on the state budget for the current fiscal year: “I thought all those resolutions we were passing memorializing Congress were doing some good. Evidently they weren’t.”

And every session is rife with lawmakers spending time on frivolous bills and congratulating or acknowledging this, that and the other group or individual for achieving something or visiting the State House to observe the happenings.

So, would it help to shorten the session? Would doing so force legislators to prioritize, in the way that a sense of urgency focuses the mind, and leave the trivialities to their happy hour socials and in-district schmooze fests?

Perhaps, but not necessarily.

“There’s no simple formula,” USC associate professor Tompkins says.

In a handful of states – Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon and Texas – their legislatures meet just every other year.

And many states with annual sessions put stricter time limits on them than South Carolina’s, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: in Arkansas, 60 calendar days in odd-numbered years and 30 in even; in Utah, 45 calendar days.

Legislation in 2009 called for shortening the Palmetto State’s session by one month (H. 3405) or two months (S. 209). Neither proposal made it out of committee.

In addition to the idea that a more abbreviated session reduces the occasion for legislators to make matters worse, proponents argue that it saves money and provides less time for lawmakers to develop and perpetuate an entrenched, professional, king-maker culture so tellingly exhibited in their titles – the honorables.

Concerning the cost savings, there’s little doubt that shaving a month or more off of the session, or holding it every other year instead, would cut the expenses associated with it.

Legislators themselves demonstrated that fact this session. To save money amid a woeful state budget picture, the House adjourned for three weeks of furlough and the Senate took one week off.

The General Assembly’s operating budget for the current fiscal year is about $29 million.

To Tompkins, however, there could be an intangible cost to whatever monetary savings might be had via a shorter session. He argues that it would vest more power in unelected people who influence the legislative process, namely lobbyists and lawmakers’ staffs.

The shorter the session, he says, “The more they get to shape how things are done.”

And while powerbrokers such as the insurance industry employ lobbyists to represent them at the State House, Tompkins says, “Poor people who need jobs don’t have a lobbyist in Columbia, last time I checked.”

Tompkins cites the state budget, weighing in at hundreds of pages, to illustrate the learning curve demands placed on legislators. “There are bound to be some surprises lurking there,” he says. “It’s just inevitable given the complexity of that document.”

Bruce Ransom is chairman of the doctoral program in policy studies and director of graduate programs at Clemson University’s Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

Ransom says issues like education have become more complex since World War II and the 1960s, creating a need for legislatures to have standing committees and full-time staffs and research operations “so that they could do the serious work.”

Tompkins and Ransom also suggest that resolutions and the like are part of the fabric of the legislative process.

“In truth, every community wants their legislature to celebrate their college baseball team that won the World Series,” Tompkins says. “They ought to say these things. It’s generally harmless.”

He emphasizes “generally.”

Ransom agrees. “All legislative bodies do that for whatever the issues might be,” he says. “All of that is part of the legislative process. In a sense that’s like constituent service.”

If that’s true, South Carolinians are getting plenty of it from their elected representatives in the Legislature.

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@scpolicycouncil.com.