Wrap-Up Session Includes Higher Ed Transparency Bill

June 14, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveThink there’s no need for mandatory higher education spending transparency in South Carolina? That the state’s publicly supported colleges and universities are getting with the program and will take care of it all by their lonesome?

Think again.

Denmark Technical College employees rang up more than $14,000 in unauthorized charges with state-issued credit cards this fiscal year, according to a June 5 report by the Orangeburg Times and Democrat newspaper.

The improper charges included “meals that appeared to be for personal consumption, gasoline and gift cards, plus hotel, transportation and vehicle maintenance expenditures,” the story says.

It cites a review of Denmark Tech’s use of state credit cards from July 1 through February. The S.C. Technical College System conducted the review.

Kelly Steinhilper, communications director for the Technical College System, did not respond to two phone messages and an email from The Nerve on Thursday, and another phone message on Monday.

The messages sought a copy of a report on Denmark Tech’s state credit card usage. The state tech system presented the report to the college’s governing commission in May.

Meanwhile, fewer than half of the state’s publicly funded colleges and universities have begun posting their expenditures online as part of a spending transparency project. S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom launched the Internet-based venture a few years ago. Denmark Tech is not among the schools that have joined the initiative.

But for taxpayer watchdogs, a bill that would force all of the schools to do so is close to passing.

The bill, S. 172, would require all state-supported higher eds to maintain an online register in which they record all of their spending “from whatever source for whatever purpose.”

For each transaction, the schools would have to disclose its amount, the payee and a description of the expense. The data would have to be provided in a searchable format and updated at least once a month.

The bill includes online disclosure requirements for state credit cards issued to public colleges and universities.

However, in the favor factory that is the State House, the legislation appears to hinge on horse trading among lawmakers, with taxpayer-funded lobbyists from the higher eds in the mix pushing their agenda.

“Oh, I think they are horse trading,” Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester and chief sponsor of the bill, says when asked whether that’s true of the schools.

But despite that situation, and way-long odds of any particular bill passing among countless proposals introduced every year, Rose’s measure lives and could make it across the finish line by the end of the month.

The General Assembly reconvened today to begin wrapping up its work from this year’s legislative session, and Rose’s bill is among a precious few on lawmakers’ agenda.

During the regular session, both the House and Senate passed separate college spending transparency bills. Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, is lead sponsor of the House version, H. 3185.

But as the session clock ticked toward mid-May, neither chamber had passed the other’s bill, as The Nerve reported in this May 17 story.

Then, two days later, the House got busy on Rose’s bill (The Nerve reported on that, too) and passed it before the regular session ended, but in amended form.

The Senate did not concur with the House’s changes to the bill. So now, during this wrap-up session, a conference committee with three members from each chamber will try to work out a compromise version that they both accept.

The Senate conferees are Rose and Sens. John Courson, R-Richland and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and Darrell Jackson, D-Richland.

As of Monday afternoon the House conferees had not been publicly named.

“We’re supposed to meet Tuesday afternoon (today),” Rose said last week regarding the conference committee.

The differences between the House and Senate drafts of the bill are where the horse trading comes into play.

“The non-concurrence and the differences and the opinions have nothing to do with the transparency provisions of the bill,” Rose says.

Rather, the disagreement centers on an entirely different issue that was tacked onto the legislation – much lengthier provisions that would grant state-supported colleges and universities greater flexibility in construction projects and their procurement procedures.

The House and Senate did not see eye to eye on the language of those provisions.

“Somehow one’s considered relevant to the other,” Rose says of the transparency and flexibility issues.

Last year, taxpayer-funded lobbyists from some of the state’s publicly supported colleges and universities fought spending transparency legislation, lawmakers say.

This year, the schools are being more cooperative on it, legislators say, but doing so in a favor-swapping manner, whereby they are saying, “We’ll give you this (transparency) if you give us that (flexibility).”

(Hmm, is that how supposedly benevolent institutions of higher learning are supposed to comport themselves? Oh wait, that’s another story … )

In the Senate, where one member can stop a bill dead in its tracks, Courson and Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, blocked Harrell’s college spending transparency bill for a good two months this session. Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, joined them in slowing it down toward the end of that period.

In The Nerve’s first story, Courson said it was his position that the flexibility legislation had to pass in tandem with spending transparency – or neither measure would pass.

Asked whether that bothers him, Rose said no. “What it comes down to is that’s the way it is,” he said, “and whether I like it or not is beside the point.”

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