Still No Sunshine on S.C. House, Senate Spending

February 21, 2012

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

SunlightIt doesn’t look like any sunlight will shine for now on the traditionally secretive process that the S.C. General Assembly uses in adopting budgets for its own chambers, which have grown significantly in recent years.

Since January 2011, The Nerve has pointed out that the Legislature typically doesn’t follow the budget process most other state agencies use. The two chambers, for example, don’t submit their proposed budgets for the upcoming fiscal year by a Nov. 1 annual deadline as required by state law.

And, unlike many other agencies, the Legislature doesn’t vet its proposed budgets before budget-writing committees in public hearings.

What typically happens is that the clerks of both houses work out proposed budgets for their respective chambers privately with legislative leaders. The public usually doesn’t get its first glimpse of those budgets until February or March when the House Ways and Means Committee adopts the first version of the upcoming state budget.

But there was a sign last week of some possible movement toward more transparency – at least in the Senate.

Contacted by The Nerve, Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville and co-chairman of a Senate Finance subcommittee that handles the chambers’ budget requests, said he would ask Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett to appear before his subcommittee to publicly discuss the Senate chamber’s proposed budget for next fiscal year, which starts July 1.

“Let’s add some transparency; let’s add some sunshine,” Fair said Wednesday.

By Monday, however, Fair’s position apparently had changed.

“At this point, we are not requiring agencies which have not requested an increase to come before our committee,” Fair said in an email to The Nerve. “That may change, and if it does, I’ll let you know.”

Fair’s subcommittee, however, on Wednesday is scheduled to hear from representatives of the state Criminal Justice Academy, which, according to its own budget proposal and the governor’s proposed executive budget, is requesting a smaller total budget for fiscal year 2013.

In a follow-up phone interview with The Nerve on Monday, Fair said he spoke with Gossett after being interviewed last week by The Nerve. Fair said he wasn’t giving special treatment to the Senate, noting that other agencies not requesting budget increases for next fiscal year – citing the S.C. Treasurer’s Office as an example – also would not be required to appear before his subcommittee, though he didn’t know if that were standard practice.

In his initial interview last week, Fair, who is chairman of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee, acknowledged at first that he wasn’t aware that the chambers’ budget requests came through his Finance subcommittee. He said the two subcommittees were recently merged into one, and that his previous subcommittee didn’t handle those requests.

Although initially open to making the Senate chamber’s budget process more transparent, Fair said he would not extend the same invitation to House Clerk Charles Reid to have him discuss the House’s proposed fiscal year 2013 budget before his subcommittee.

Asked why, Fair replied, “That is really their business even though we (the full Senate) have to agree to go along with it (budget request). … That’s just tradition.”

Typically, the House and Senate “don’t mess with the others’” budgets, Fair said.

Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley and chairman of a House Ways and Means subcommittee responsible for the chambers’ budgets, gave a similar answer to The Nerve last month when questioned about the budget process.

“It’s probably a little less formal than some of the other agencies,” Merrill said then. “Generally, they (the Senate) will give us their budget, and we will give them ours. We generally don’t tamper with each others’ budgets.”

That practice, however, has led in recent years to largely unexamined budget increases for each chamber.

The House, for example, on the last day for regular legislative business this past June, slipped in a $2.3 million increase for itself for this fiscal year, The Nerve reported then. And the Senate the year before received a nearly $5 million annual hike, which wasn’t first publicly proposed until more than three months after the General Assembly was in session.

Part of that $5 million hike covered pay raises for Senate staffers, despite claims by chamber leaders that the money was needed for other pressing concerns, The Nerve reported in 2010.

The Nerve last month initially emailed requests to Gossett and Reid – the two highest-paid chamber employees with annual salaries of $148,511 and $144,922, respectively – asking them for details of their proposed fiscal year 2013 budgets. After they didn’t respond, The Nerve sent them formal requests for those records under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

In a written response dated Feb. 6, Reid said, “The House of Representatives has not requested any change to its appropriations for the upcoming FY 2012-13.”

Gossett did not respond by a 15-business-day legal deadline but said in a written response last week after contacted by The Nerve about missing the deadline that his chamber has “not requested any additional funds over what was appropriated in the prior fiscal year.”

Neither Gossett nor Reid, however, replied to follow-up questions from The Nerve, including whether they:

  • Discussed their proposed chamber budgets with any House Ways and Means or Senate Finance committee members;
  • Knew if any lawmakers were planning to seek any increases in the chambers’ budgets;
  • Were aware of any planned public hearings on the proposals; and
  • Planned to request any raises for their respective staffs.

Besides not answering those questions, neither the House and Senate clerks nor legislative budget writers likely will not talk publicly about the relatively large budget surpluses the chambers accumulate every year.

The House, for example, carried over $5.8 million in general funds into this fiscal year, while the Senate carried over $4 million, Office of State Budget records show. Those amounts represent more than 30 percent of this fiscal year’s general fund appropriations of approximately $18.7 million for the House and $12.4 million for the Senate.

In addition, the Senate carried over another $1.5 million in “other” funds into this fiscal year; the House amount in that category was $142,457, records show.

Reid and Gossett didn’t respond to questions last week from The Nerve about their chambers’ surpluses.

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