Why the Governor’s Budget Won’t Be Debated

SOUTH CAROLINA’S EXECUTIVE BUDGET GETS IGNORED – AND THAT’S HOW LAWMAKERS LIKE IT

On websites and editorial pages across the nation, Americans are debating President Donald Trump’s proposed budget. The president’s budget would, among other things, increase defense spending by over $600 billion; cut $193 billion over ten years from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, a.k.a. food stamps); cut $72 billion from the Social Security Disability Insurance program; and do nothing to reform Social Security and Medicare.

Of course, the president’s budget will be altered a great deal by the time it comes back to him for his signature. But the executive budget is an expression of the president’s priorities; and since he (together with the vice president) is the only official elected by the entire country’s electorate, his budget priorities ought to initiate and broadly define the budget debate.

Whatever one thinks of Trump’s budget, in other words, it ought to be openly debated.

Next January, however, when the president’s state-level correlative in South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster, presents his executive budget to the legislature – assuming the governor presents one – the legislature will completely ignore it.

In South Carolina, the budget is written from scratch in an array of appropriations subcommittees. In general lawmakers base their decisions on the previous year’s budget, adding a little and subtracting a little. The budget doesn’t take any kind of coherent shape as a spending plan until it’s passed by the House Ways and Means committee. The governor has no practical role in the process.

Not that governors haven’t tried. Governor Mark Sanford (2003-2011) was the first governor, or at any rate the first in modern state history, to submit full executive budgets to the legislature at the outset of the legislative session. All eight of Gov. Sanford’s executive budgets were ignored. In and around the Statehouse, those phonebook-sized budgets were often referred to as “door stoppers.”

And yet for several decades – going back long before the Sanford administration – state law has mandated the governor to submit an executive budget and lawmakers to debate that budget.

Section 11-11-70 is plain and direct: “Within five days after the beginning of each regular session of the General Assembly, the Governor shall submit to the presiding officer of each house printed copies of a budget, based on his own conclusions and judgments, containing a complete and itemized plan of all proposed expenditures for each state department, bureau, division, officer, board, commission, institution, or other agency or undertaking.”

Section 11-11-90 requires lawmakers to meet on that executive budget, not come up with their own. Within five days of the governor’s submission of his or her budget, the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means Committees “shall sit jointly in open sessions while considering the budget.” These are to be “public hearings,” and the governor has the right to be heard “on all matters coming before the joint committee.” Section 11-11-100 allows that “the General Assembly may increase or decrease items in the budget bill as it may deem to be in the interest of greater economy and efficiency in the public service.” The intent is clear. The governor should draft “the budget,” and the legislature should make adjustments to that document.*

Of course, none of this is done. When asked, lawmakers have characterized the law as “antiquated” – as if any other citizen or taxpayer could use that excuse for not following the law.

The budget law should be followed because it’s the law. It should also be followed, though, because it’s an excellent law. Following the budget law would give citizens the opportunity to see what the governor, whom they collectively put in office, thinks ought to be the state’s budget priorities. Citizens could see those priorities debated by state lawmakers in open hearings. That, in turn, would make overall budget priorities a subject of statewide debate and discussion, both during both campaign and non-campaign years.

Under present extra-legal practices, the state spending plan emerges from legislative subcommittees as a hodgepodge of local concerns with no overarching statewide rationale. Those subcommittees are open to the public, yes, but the public can hardly be expected to attend a dizzying array of subcommittee meetings, many of which happen simultaneously.

Currently, citizens have almost no control over the shape and size of their state’s budget. That’s great for lawmakers and their pet projects – and bad for taxpayers.

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* Section 11-11-15 transfers the budget-writing duties of the Budget and Control Board, now the State Fiscal Affairs Authority, to the governor; hence “wherever the phrase ‘State Budget and Control Board’ appears in the context of preparing and submitting budget recommendations to the General Assembly, it means the Governor.”

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