State Agencies Swimming in Budget Surpluses

September 5, 2012

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

MoneyWhen South Carolina’s top accountant last week announced there would be about $15 million less in surplus money to play with this fiscal year, state government did not come to a grinding halt.

In fact, there are plenty of state agencies swimming in surpluses.

Take the House and Senate, for example. The two chambers collectively had general-fund reserves of slightly more than $15 million as of July 1, the start of the fiscal 2013 year, according to a year-end fiscal 2012 report released last week by S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom.

The House carried over more than $9.7 million into this fiscal year, which represented 52 percent of its nearly $18.7 million base appropriation for fiscal 2012. When that surplus is combined with an additional $2.5 million appropriation that the House received this fiscal year, the 124-member chamber will have more than $31 million available to spend by June 30.

The Nerve reported last week that House leaders have not publicly said why they need the additional $2.5 million. The Nerve reported earlier that higher-paid House staff received raises ranging from 5 percent to 55 percent last fiscal year after the chamber received a nearly $2.3 million increase.

The Senate isn’t hurting for money, either:  The 46-member chamber carried over nearly $5.3 million in general funds into this fiscal year – 43 percent of its base $12.4 million appropriation for fiscal 2012, according to Eckstrom’s report. With the surplus, the chamber will have more than $18 million available to spend this fiscal year.

A state budget proviso allows the Senate and House to carry forward all unspent general funds into the following fiscal year. Generally, state agencies are allowed to carry forward up to 10 percent of their original general-fund appropriation.

Neither Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett nor House Clerk Charles Reid – the chambers’ top administrators – responded Tuesday to written questions from The Nerve about the surpluses for their respective chambers.

The House and Senate were among at least 43 state agencies, including the Comptroller General’s Office and programs run through the Governor’s Office, that reported general-fund surpluses at the end of last fiscal year, according to Eckstrom’s report. The House and Senate chambers ranked in the top 10 in that category.

Following are the state agencies with the 10-highest general-fund surplus amounts at the end of last fiscal year, which were rounded by The Nerve to the nearest $100,000:

  • Department of Health and Human Services – $62.9 million;
  • Department of Education – $17.1 million;
  • Budget and Control Board – $14.8 million;
  • S.C. House – $9.7 million;
  • Department of Corrections – $7.3 million;
  • Department of Health and Environmental Control – $5.5 million;
  • S.C. Senate – $5.3 million;
  • Department of Public Safety – $3.8 million;
  • Department of Revenue – $3.4 million; and
  • Governor’s Office – $3.1 million ($108,505 of that amount lapsed under state law).

In total, nearly $166 million in general funds, or slightly more than 3 percent of the base $5.3 billion general-fund budget for fiscal 2012, was carried over into this fiscal year, according to Eckstrom’s report. That amount includes year-end surpluses in certain state funds.

In addition, given past budgeting practices by state agencies, there likely will be hundreds of millions of dollars in surplus “other” funds this fiscal year. Other funds include such things as college tuition, lottery proceeds, various fees charged by state agencies, state gasoline taxes, and 1 cent of the 6-cent state sales tax earmarked for certain K-12 programs.

The amount of other funds carried over into this fiscal year wasn’t immediately available Tuesday, though The Nerve reported in February that nearly $1.5 billion in other-fund reserves was available at the start of last fiscal year.

It remains to be seen whether any surplus money will be returned to state taxpayers this fiscal year. In May, the Senate in a 24-18 vote rejected a proposed state budget amendment by Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, to create a $78 million rebate fund for taxpayers by Dec. 31. The General Assembly did eventually establish a “Tax Relief Reserve Fund” through a state budget proviso, though lawmakers didn’t appropriate any fixed amount to it.

Instead, the $23.6 billion total budget for this fiscal year includes authorized spending of more than $550 million in actual and projected surplus funds – minus the approximately $15 million that Eckstrom shaved off last week in his year-end fiscal 2012 report.

Given that, taxpayers likely will have to wait yet another year for any significant tax relief.

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