House to Chip Away at Roll Call Requirement?

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RESOLUTION WOULD ALLOW HOUSE TO BYPASS ROLL CALL ON BUDGET SECTIONS

In 2008, the Policy Council released a study revealing that the South Carolina General Assembly passed bills with recorded votes only 5 percent of the time. In short, lawmakers were passing hundreds of laws on unrecorded voice votes, thus in effect exempting themselves from any need to explain or justify their votes. In 2011, after three years of debate and controversy, the legislature finally passed a law requiring recorded votes on the House and Senate floors on second reading for any bill with the force of law.

In the years since, the roll call requirement has had a major impact on lawmakers’ choices. In 2014, for example, one senator remarked to a reporter that the roll-call requirement had made it difficult to pass an increase in the gas tax. “The purpose [of roll-call voting],” he said, “was to expose, but what it did was kill legislation.”

The law as it stands now, however, requires a roll call vote on each section of the budget. The language could not be clearer.

The Annual General Appropriations Bill must be considered section-by-section prior to third reading, and must receive a recorded roll call vote by the House of Representatives and the Senate when the pending question is the adoption of an individual section.

The reason behind the law is clear enough – lawmakers can’t be held accountable for their budgetary decisions unless their votes are recorded. Whether there’s a good reason for it or not, however, it’s the law. Yet in 2016 the House, evidently on the premise that House rules can violate the law code, tried to vote on budget sections by unanimous consent, i.e. without recording each member’s vote. When Gov. Nikki Haley, SCPC, and others criticized the move, House Speaker Jay Lucas backed down, citing “an abundance of caution.”

Last year’s climb-down notwithstanding, the House Rules Committee is set to consider a similar rule change.

H.3178 – a House resolution considered by a House Rules subcommittee on Tuesday, February 28 – would give members the ability to group sections of the budget together (up to ten sections at a time) for one single vote. The motion would need to have nine other members second it, and then the whole body would vote on the motion. With a majority vote, the sections would be grouped together.

Subcommittee members amended the resolution to give each member, without requiring a second, the power to insist that any one section of the budget be voted on separately. That amendment was added, explicitly, for the benefit of those House members apprehensive about the rule change.

There are three points to make here. The first and most important is that chamber rules do not trump state law. That this has to be said at all is itself astounding. What other state laws would House members like to exempt themselves from simply by passing a rule change?

Second, lawmakers often complain that they can’t read the entire budget before voting on it. That may be true, but the answer is not to exempt state lawmakers from accountability for state budgets. If the state spending plan should be shorter and more easily understood, make it so. But lawmakers should be obliged, even if they can’t read every section line by line, at least to hear debate on every section.

Third, by discarding the requirement to vote by roll call on every section, lawmakers once again make it far easier for individual members to slip in waste unnoticed. Every section of the state’s roughly $25 billion budget should be scrutinized as closely as possible – taxpayers deserve at least that much.

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