SC’s Budget Law Is … Excellent?

LAWMAKERS DON’T NEED TO CHANGE IT. THEY NEED TO FOLLOW IT.

Over the past several months, we’ve argued in a variety of venues that South Carolina law protects members of the legislature from public scrutiny. They have a special exemption from the state’s Freedom of Information law; they’re permitted to cut secret deals with private companies at taxpayer expense; they’re not required to report private income sources, meaning they can vote on and introduce bills that directly affect their personal bottom line; and in the unlikely event that they actually fall afoul of state ethics laws, their cases are adjudicated by each other.

In the case of the law governing the process for passing the state budget, by contrast, we have only praise. The law is crystal clear; it’s constitutionally sound, involving both executive and legislative branches; and it requires a high level of transparency, allowing the public to follow debate on the budget from beginning to end.

The only trouble with the law? Legislators ignore it.

  • The law requires state agencies to submit their anticipated budgets for the upcoming year by November 1. They submit these budget requests to the Comptroller General. As if to signal what’s to come, the House and Senate never submit theirs. They simply ignore the deadline.
  • The law requires the governor to write a full spending plan. Until the Sanford administration, governors didn’t even write their own budgets. Under both Gov. Sanford and Gov. Haley, executive budgets have been almost completely ignored.
  • The law (see 11-11-90) requires House and Senate appropriations committees to hold “joint open hearings” and to do so “within five days after the governor submits the budget.” To our knowledge, these hearings have never happened. (See a fuller explanation of the law here.)

So here’s what does happen. Once the governor submits his or her spending plan in January and the legislature has duly ignored it, House Ways and Means subcommittees begin deliberating. While the meetings are technically “open to the public,” very few people know about them. And in any case, these meetings deal with such arcane minutiae – attend one of them and you’ll hear a lot about “privisos” and “carry-forwards” and “other funds” – that the average member of the public will have no clue what it’s all about.

Once these subcommittees agree on their portions of the budget, they send them to the full Ways and Means Committee. There is some open debate at these hearings – some media usually attend – but again it’s very difficult to understand what’s happening. Why? Because the budget isn’t one coherent product yet. It’s just a collection of funding items without context. There is no “big picture,” as there would be if the legislature were to debate the executive budget. There is no sense, as there is in any family or business budget, that one thing has to be cut in order to ensure that another thing stays. Cuts are simply cuts, and increases are simply increases.

Once the Ways and Means budget passes, it moves to the full House, where it receives some debate and passes – often unanimously – out of the House and moves to the Senate. Making the process even more murky, the Senate begins its own deliberations independently of the House’s budget! In other words: the Senate does its own thing; it doesn’t work off the House budget. In fact, the House doesn’t need to pass a budget at all. Up to this point, any members of the public who’ve tried to follow the budget have largely wasted their time.

Why does the House bother, then? For largely political reasons: House members need to be able to say they voted for or against such and such increases or decreases. House caucus leaders need to be able to say they sent the Senate a “conservative” budget, but the Senate messed it all up.

By the time the budget reaches the Senate, it’s worth following, but by then it’s very late in the process and the budget’s overall priorities have long since been set. A few individual items may increase or decrease, but the budget is largely a done deal, and the public has no real idea of how big the budget really is. What’s the increase from last year’s budget? Which programs and agencies got the largest increases? Which, if any, were cut?  Has any money been set aside for debt repayment?

These are the kinds of questions that should be asked in January. Sure, they can be asked in June and July, too, but by then the answers simply aren’t going to change. By early summer, the public has no real chance to shrink the legislature’s spending plan, and individual politicians can tell their constituents – correctly thought not quite truthfully – that there’s very little they can do about any of it.

Of course, the best argument for following the law is that it’s the law. But in this case, at least, there are excellent practical reasons for following it. Chief among these is that, if the law were followed, the public would actually be able to follow debate on state spending in real time. The budget would begin with a coherent budgetary product – the law requires that the governor submit a “complete and itemized plan of all proposed expenditures” – and the public would have a chance to consider overarching budgetary priorities, not simply half-understood funding items.

The law makes sense, too, for this reason: The governor, unlike lawmakers, is accountable to citizens of the entire state. Legislators are accountable to the voters of their districts. A legislator or legislative delegation may feel that some local project is vital to the area’s welfare – a new road, a new school, a new museum, a locally based program. A governor, by contrast, is forced to view those local projects in the context of the entire state’s needs. It makes sense, therefore, for the governor to set the state’s budgetary priorities. Lawmakers’ priorities are with their districts.

In sum: Lawmakers already already get to keep their official correspondence secret. They get to try their own ethics cases in secret. They can cut deals with private companies in secret. And they can keep financial conflicts of interest secret. Must they pass the budget in secret, too?

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