Governor Signs Bill to ‘Shorten’ Session

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WILL THE NEW LAW CUT SOUTH CAROLINA’S HALF-YEAR SESSION, OR IS IT ANOTHER FAUX REFORM?

Gov. Nikki Haley recently signed a bill shortening South Carolina’s legislative session. Media reports indicate that the bill would cut session by three weeks or four weeks, but a close reading of the bill strongly suggests that session won’t be shortened in any significant way, if at all.

So: why is shortening session important, and will the reform the governor signed make a difference?

Session shortening: What’s the point?

South Carolina’s state legislature seems to be in session almost all the time – because it is. Stretching from January to June, our session is tied with those of seven other states as the 6th longest in the nation. It’s tied with Tennessee’s as the longest session in the Southeast. Whereas Southeastern legislatures meet for an average of 94 calendar days out of the year, South Carolina’s General Assembly sits from January to June, or about 143 calendar days a year.

That’s a big deal for this reason: The longer lawmakers spend in Columbia, the more time they spend with lobbyists and special interests, and the less time they’re around the people they represent. Studies have consistently found that professional, full-time legislatures pass more bills catering to special interests and spend more taxpayer money than part-time legislatures. In other words: professional legislatures are more prone to pressure from lobbyists – and this translates into higher spending.

Technically, of course, South Carolina’s legislature isn’t “professional” – lawmakers don’t receive a full-time salary – but the length of time necessary to be a South Carolina lawmaker makes it a de facto professional job. And although lawmakers make considerably more than the $10,400 many of them claim is their total salary – the real amount is closer to $32,000 per year – the relatively low pay may make it more likely, not less likely, that lawmakers will use their offices to profit financially.

The answer isn’t to increase lawmakers’ pay. The answer is to dramatically shorten the time required to be a lawmaker. The fact is, it simply shouldn’t take much time to do the people’s business and leave town. Texas, for example – a state whose economy and state government dwarf South Carolina’s – only holds legislative sessions every other year. (The same is true of Montana, Nevada, and North Dakota.)

Every year, session-shortening bills are introduced in South Carolina’s General Assembly, and 2016 was no exception. Several were filed in January. Eventually, one passed and was quickly signed by the governor.

Will this new law make any positive difference?

Unfortunately, no. The law contains so many loopholes as to make it virtually pointless – and maybe worse than pointless.

S.267 shortens the annual legislative session by three weeks, ending it on the second Thursday in May instead of the first Thursday in June. That would shorten session modestly, but the bill includes these exceptions:

  • If the Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) forecasts a revenue reduction after April 10 for the next fiscal year, the session may be extended for up to two weeks with the agreement of the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem.
  • The House and Senate may extend session by concurrent resolution with a two-thirds majority vote, but may only consider the budget and any topics specifically listed in the resolution.

Furthermore, an already existing loophole remains part of the state law: If the House does not pass the budget by March 31st, session is extended by one day for every day after March 31st that the budget doesn’t get third reading.

Now consider a new provision introduced by S.267. Each year, the Board of Economic Advisors, or BEA, publishes its final economic forecast that allows legislative budget-writers to assess how much revenue they have to work with for the next fiscal year. The deadline for publication of the BEA’s final forecast was February 15, but the new law moves that date forward to April 10. If the point is to get the budget done faster because session is shorter, it makes no sense to move the BEA deadline forward.

The House almost always passes its budget before the BEA forecast is published, but the Senate never does. Or to say it another way: the Senate Finance Committee never finalizes its budget until the new BEA numbers are available. (This isn’t a rule or statute; just longstanding tradition.) The later April 10th deadline for the BEA forecast makes it likely that the budget process will take more time, not less, by moving the full Senate budget debate further into the year.

Under the best of circumstances, then, South Carolina’s 21-week session would be 18 weeks in length (still two weeks longer than the median session length among all other states – a modest cut). But since in practice the “best of circumstances” never applies – since lawmakers always take longer than anticipated to finish their job and routinely continue to meet well past the end of session by means of sine die resolutions – one can safely assume that South Carolina’s legislative session will last as long as it always does.

A sensible reform?

A genuine session-shortening reform should either

  • Require sessions to end by 5 p.m. on the second Friday in April – making each session last roughly 90 calendar days;
  • Cap session at no more than 45 legislative days within the above calendar limit; or
  • Keep the current January-to-June session, but make it biennial – every other year.

These proposals will have to wait till next year, or for a legislature that actually sees the need to spend less time in Columbia and more with constituents.

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