Signs Point to Legislature Ignoring Law on Budget

January 11, 2012

Investigative Reports

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The NerveSouth Carolina law requires the governor to submit a recommended state budget to the General Assembly within five days of the legislative session starting, and Gov. Nikki Haley says she will do so.

But will the Legislature also follow the law regarding how the budget is to be prepared?

The 2012 legislative session, which began Tuesday, provides another test case in this often overlooked but important issue.

Some signs, including a House subcommittee hearing before the session even began, indicate that the Legislature might be following its longstanding practice of doing its own thing on the budget, the requirements of state law notwithstanding.

Responding to questions from The Nerve after a news conference at the State House on Tuesday, Haley said she will release her proposed budget for the upcoming 2012-13 fiscal year on Friday. That new fiscal year begins July 1.

Haley sounded optimistic notes about the budget process this year. “It’s going to be a good year,” she toldThe Nerve. “We’re going to have truth-in-budgeting.”

The beginning passages of Title 11, Chapter 11 of the S.C. Code of Laws dictate how the budget should be crafted. The code assigns different responsibilities to the executive and legislative branches of state government in a delicate separation and balance of powers.

The law says the governor prepares a recommended budget based on surveying state entities and taking into account spending proposals from them, along with financial statements the comptroller general is supposed to furnish.

All of that information must be compiled and provided by Nov. 1 each year.

And by Dec. 1 annually, the comptroller general also is to provide the governor with an estimate of the state’s financial needs, according to the law.

Then within five days of the session starting, the governor is charged with submitting a proposed budget to the presiding officers of the House and Senate.

At that point the process shifts to the Legislature. Its appropriations committees – House Ways and Means and Senate Finance – are to hold joint public hearings on the governor’s recommended budget within five days of receiving it, the law says.

Additionally, it says the General Assembly “may increase or decrease items in the budget bill” as it might deem in the best interests of the state.

As The Nerve reported in October, however, some knowledgeable State House observers say the Legislature largely ignores these requirements and instead goes its own way on the budget.

Asked whether she expects lawmakers to take her proposed 2012-13 spending plan seriously and use it as a template, Haley said she does.

That’s not the way it typically has worked in the past, though.

“No, it’s not,” Haley said. But she added that her administration has been working closely with Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, and other key legislators, and she anticipates a positive, cooperative process.

But while that might end up being the case, the appropriations committees already have jumped in on next year’s budget – even before the session began, and even before Haley has unveiled her 2012-13 spending plan.

Last week, when the session clock had yet to begin ticking, a Ways and Means subcommittee met and considered budget allocations for a handful of entities. Those included, of all bodies, the House and Senate.

Too, the subcommittee was scheduled to meet again Tuesday and today – before Haley has introduced her recommended budget – to discuss appropriations for several other functions. Among those were the Ethics Commission, the lieutenant governor’s office and the comptroller general’s office.

The Senate Finance Committee planned to meet Tuesday, as well, to receive revenue, economic and budget outlooks for the coming fiscal year. Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, chairs the Finance Committee.

The meetings do not necessarily demonstrate that the Legislature aims to chart its own course on the budget. But at the same time, a budget calendar on the Ways and Means Committee’s Web page certainly does not present evidence to the contrary.

The calendar does not include the pre-session subcommittee hearing. But it does mention, in short shrift, the Code of Laws section requiring the governor to submit a proposed budget to the House and Senate chieftans within five days of the session starting.

Conspicuously absent from the Ways and Means budget schedule: all of the other executive branch responsibilities and deadlines in the process, as well as the appropriations committees’ duty to hold joint public hearings on the governor’s recommended spending plan within five days of receiving it.

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.