Budget Process Remains Secretive

THERE’S ONLY ONE WAY TO ACHIEVE BUDGET TRANSPARENCY, AND THAT’S TO FOLLOW THE LAW 

The budget debate this session was one of the most bizarre we’ve seen yet. It wasn’t that many years ago that the state’s Budget and Control Board was making across-the-board budget cuts owing to the recession and the state’s inability to meet its budgetary commitments. Elected officials have presumably long forgotten about those days, however, and they’ve long since gone back to appropriating every dollar the state receives. Strangely, lawmakers and the governor alike are hardly even arguing over the growth of the booming $26 billion budget.

This year was strange, too, in how difficult it was for the public (and even some lawmakers) to get an accurate picture of the size of the budget or even how much cash the state could appropriate in real time. Recall Sen. Tom Davis’ (R-Beaufort) criticism from the Senate floor of the Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) handling of the certification of revenue. The failure of the BEA to certify revenue led to a prolonged Senate budget debate – and left us all wondering exactly what the real numbers were in the budget this year.

It’s disappointing to see that the budget process remains opaque despite gains toward a more transparent process over the years. Consider the “gains”:

72-hour budget review rule

The process for this reform began in 2009 after the Policy Council released an in-depth study showing that our state budget was actually $21 billion – three times the size most citizens and politicians believed it to be. At that time, $6 billion was often reported as the size of the state budget; as the report showed, however, that was just the size of the state’s General Fund. In response, Sen. Tom Davis (R- Beaufort) filed a Senate Resolution requiring budget bills to be on Senate desks for 72 hours prior to being debated and voted on. That resolution was sent to the Senate Rules Committee where, after two years, it died.

Then, in 2011, a much weaker version of the proposal was adopted and is now Senate Rule 53. What has happened in practice, however, is that the budget drafting process takes such a long time that the Senate is usually down to the end of session before they begin floor debate on the budget. Therefore, they often use their rules to meet in “perfunctory sessions” (where they are not actually present in the chamber) on Friday’s and weekends to satisfy the letter of the rule, but certainly not the intent.

24-hour rule

Both the House and Senate have a version of the 24 hour rule. This rule applies to all bills, but both bodies have rules that permit them to override it. The rule require legislation to have been on the calendar one legislative day before it can be considered. The rule can be helpful during the budget process, especially on the matter of conference committee reports.

There are way of getting around the rule, however. For example, in the Senate, Rule 37 permits the Senate to suspend the rule by a vote of three-fifths of those present and voting during the six statewide legislative days prior to sine die adjournment – often the period in which the budget conference committee reports are submitted. The corresponding rule in the House is Rule 5.14, which permits the rule to be “specifically dispensed with” by a two-thirds vote of the members present and voting.

Proviso transparency rule

There are two parts to the budget: Part 1A which is the general agency budgets, and Part 1B, containing one-year provisos (directives on how to spend money in Part 1A, and earmarks). In the House, Rule 5.3(F) requires earmark requests to be reduced to writing on a form “designed by the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.” The rule requires this form to include the name of the member who requested the earmark project or program, and an explanation of the earmark project or program requested. This form has to be filed with the Ways and Means Committee, which publishes a compilation of the requests on the chamber’s website.

This rule can be helpful for the public to understand conflicts of interest (i.e. lawmakers requesting public funds for a program or entity from which they may receive a personal benefit). Such a rule does not exist in the Senate, though Sen. Paul Thurmond (R- Charleston) has filed a resolution to enact one. In any case, however, lawmakers aren’t required to disclose their private income sources, so the usefulness of this rule is significantly limited.

Bottom line

What should be clear now is that we have settled for concessions and have not achieved the leaps in transparency we once thought we had. What gains have been made have been achieved through rules changes in each chamber. The problem with trying to accomplish reform through changes in rules, however, is that rules can be changed or watered down far easier than laws can. Legislative leaders’ familiarity with these arcane rules enables them, in essence, to get around them whenever they wish, and the average citizen will have no idea.

For these reasons, there is only one real reform that is going to change the way our officials debate the budget – enforcement of the state budget law. This is the only way we will see spending prioritized from a statewide perspective, rather than the fragmented free for all of legislators trying to secure funds to send “back home” we currently see. Citizens will be able to hold officials accountable for growth from one budget to the next. Agencies wouldn’t have to waste time presenting their budgetary needs multiple times, in addition to their written request at the outset of the year for the executive budget. Further, agencies could be held more accountable for their expenditures and the merits of the programs they oversee could be debated openly – with the opportunity for public input – between all parties involved in writing our state budget.

Absent the enforcement of the state budget law, citizens are likely to know less and less about our state budget in real time. We are past the point of needing new rules to make the budget more accessible to citizens. What we need is for our lawmakers to be forced to follow the law.

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