Transparency efforts could illuminate SC’s budget process

Transparency efforts could illuminate SC’s budget process

Giving citizens a clearer picture of where their tax dollars are going, and why

As a research intern for the S.C. Policy Council, I attended many legislative hearings over the spring months to learn about the state’s next budget. My objectives were twofold: see firsthand how the budget is constructed and gather as much information as possible about where taxpayers' money might be going. During this time, I found several areas where the budget process could be enhanced to provide more transparency and accessibility for South Carolinians.

This report dives into these areas and encourages common-sense solutions. It also shows that, despite current issues, things are trending in the right direction. In two cases, the solutions only require officials to follow state law.   


Consistent livestreaming

Long before reaching the House or Senate floor, the budget takes shape through a series of subcommittee-level “budget hearings,” where agencies present their spending requests for the next fiscal year. Agencies must make the case for their desired programs and why taxpayers should fund them. Lawmakers, meanwhile, get to evaluate, probe and scrutinize said requests. These valuable meetings should be accessible to all citizens, and the best way to achieve this is with video livestreaming.

However, I found that at least 20 Senate Finance Committee budget hearings went unstreamed during the session. This finding was made possible because the Policy Council tracks legislative meetings through its weekly Statehouse Updates, which can be compared to the Statehouse video archive. Agencies that presented during unstreamed Senate hearings include the state Department of Commerce, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Resilience, and several state colleges including Clemson and the University of South Carolina.

The House, which goes first in the budget process, streamed most, if not all, of its Ways and Means budget hearings this session.

Attending these meetings is not feasible for most South Carolinians, especially those outside Columbia. Many prefer to watch via livestream or view the full video once it's posted online. With these options, citizens can learn about how their money is used for education, transportation, law enforcement, and other public services from anywhere with an internet connection. They can also decide whether taxpayer-funded incentives, like the $25 million for Closing Fund grants requested by Commerce, deserve continued funding.

The best solution would be for the General Assembly to adopt a livestreaming requirement. A bill often highlighted by the Policy Council (H.3932) would mandate that all legislative committee and subcommittee meetings be livestreamed and archived for future viewing. Though it did not gain traction in 2024, the bill could serve as a blueprint for transparency in the following session.


Keeping minutes

Here’s a lesser-known fact in state law: all public bodies are supposed to keep written minutes of their public meetings. Indeed, all departments, agencies, boards, commissions, counties, municipalities, school boards, special purpose districts, and even committees and subcommittees have to record what happens during their meetings and make the minutes publicly available. The goal is to ensure transparency, accountability and a clear record of decisions made by government officials.

However, not everyone seems to be living up to this requirement. After requesting minutes for a Senate K-12 education budget hearing that took place while I had school and could not attend, I was told by staff that it does not keep minutes for the meetings. Staff on behalf of the other Senate budget subcommittees did not respond to my email requests, suggesting the problem is not unique to one group.

This raises a serious issue. If a meeting is not livestreamed and no minutes are kept, then a public record of the meeting does not exist. In this case, that would mean discussions about spending tens, and sometimes hundreds, of millions of taxpayer dollars are occurring largely outside of the public view and with no digital paper trail. Such meetings are open to the public, yes; but they are held in Columbia, occurring on weekday mornings or afternoons, and sometimes run concurrently with one another. This is not feasible for most citizens, who have work, school and other commitments.

It is imperative that minutes be kept for public meetings, including budget hearings. According to the law, these minutes should include the date and place of the meeting; the members in attendance; the substance of all matters proposed, discussed or decided; and any other information the body decides to include. Having this resource gives citizens another way to see how and why their tax dollars are being spent – one that complements livestreaming.


Meeting handouts

When agencies present in budget hearings, they often bring detailed meeting handouts and slideshows to justify their requests. Compared to the rigid and technical budget planning forms required by law, these documents aim to put requests in simple, easy to understand terms, often using charts and tables. They serve as an important resource for budget writers, but also taxpayers.

The House Ways and Means Committee does an excellent job of posting its handouts online. However, the Senate Finance Committee has yet to adopt this practice. The concern is that if agencies create new handouts or revise existing ones after meeting with House lawmakers, the updated materials won’t be accessible to the public. A review of agency budget forms reveals that several agencies revised their initial requests, with some updates occurring in March and one in April. In other words, changes do happen throughout the session, and citizens should have the most up-to-date information.

The Senate should follow in the House’s footsteps and post all budget meeting handouts online.


Follow the budget law (zero-based budgeting)

In January, the Policy Council published an analysis comparing state government spending with a spending model limited to population growth and inflation over the past 12 years. This metric, growing in popularity among conservative states, serves as an indicator of what the average taxpayer can afford to pay for government services. Staying within the limit avoids excessive government growth and makes cutting taxes easier.

The analysis found that South Carolina’s recurring general fund appropriations exceeded model appropriations for every measured year.

So, what is fueling this excessive spending? A likely factor has to do with the budget process itself. Let’s start at the beginning. When agencies kick off the cycle each year and submit their new budget requests to the Executive Budget Office, the forms do not provide a complete overview of their budgets as one might expect. Instead, these forms only provide details for new spending requests. Programs or expenditures that won't see a funding change (which is often the case) are not covered.

Take the University of South Carolina, for example, the state’s largest four-year college. Its FY25 budget form has many requests for increased funding and new capital projects that collectively total hundreds of millions of dollars. However, the form provides no explanation or justification for the $263 million in recurring general funds it currently receives. (This is not to single out one agency, but rather to show one example of a larger issue.)

The Policy Council detailed last year how this conflicts with longstanding state law, which requires agencies to justify their entire proposed budgets – both current funding and new spending requests. It reads:

“The Governor shall, prior to making annual recommendations to the General Assembly of the amounts to be appropriated to the various state agencies, departments and institutions, as required by Section 2-7-60 of the 1976 Code, require them to justify the entire amount of money they are requesting. It is the intent of this section that each state agency, department or institution shall be required to justify its recurring expenses, as well as any new or additional expenses.”

The law is clear and purposeful. Based on the principle of “zero-based budgeting,” it aims to ensure that every expense is justified annually, without regard to previous budgets. Following the law will help state budget writers identify redundant or obsolete government programs and rein in spending.


Ella Williams is a research intern for the South Carolina Policy Council