My View

On the state budget, lawmakers should start following the law

February 2, 2014 

South Carolinians have absolutely no idea what’s in the state budget until the late spring or early summer, and by that time it’s about to pass into law.

If you want to know what’s in the budget before it’s too late to make a difference, you’ll need to come to Columbia and spend three days a week from January to April attending budget subcommittee and committee meetings – and even then you won’t have any firm idea of which programs and agencies state leaders are prioritizing.

That should change. Taxpayers have a right to know how their elected representatives are spending their money as they’re spending it.

To change the situation, though – to make the state budget more transparent to the public – we don’t need a new law. What we need is for lawmakers to follow an existing law.

South Carolina law code mandate that House and Senate appropriations committees hold “joint open meetings” on the governor’s budget, and that the executive spending plan be used as the starting point of the legislative budget process.

What actually happens is something completely different. The governor submits an executive budget (Gov. Mark Sanford started the practice) and the legislature ignores it. Those “joint open meetings” haven’t taken place in decades, if they ever did at all.

But they should – and not just because the law requires them.

If House and Senate appropriators were to hold joint hearings on the budget, the public and media could have a much fuller understanding of the budget process. Under the bewilderingly complex system practiced, the budget process begins when several House Ways and Means subcommittees write portions of the budget, each taking testimony from state agency representatives; the subcommittees send their budgets to the full Ways and Means Committee, which votes on the final product and sends it to the House for debate. Once the budget bill goes to the Senate, the whole process starts over – the testimonies are repeated in Senate Finance subcommittees – and from there the budget goes to the full Senate Finance Committee and, eventually, to the Senate floor.

It’s true that all these meetings are “open to the public,” but it is impossible for anyone to follow this fragmentary and complicated “process” – indeed, many of the subcommittee meetings are held simultaneously, making it literally impossible even for experienced reporters to know what’s happening.

The law, by contrast, mandates that testimonies by state agencies all happen at the joint open hearings at the beginning of the process. The subcommittees would not be cut out of the process – they would amend the budget once it was submitted as a bill in the House – but the initial debate and testimonies on the state budget as a whole would have happened in one place, at one time, under the eyes of the public.

These hearings would provide genuine transparency to the budget process – not merely the nominal “transparency” of allowing anyone to attend innumerable subcommittee meetings. Moreover, the hearings would shorten the time taken by the budget. In recent years, this has become a real problem. The repetitive and convoluted traditional practice takes so long to get through that the Senate doesn’t even begin debating the budget until the spring. Consequently there is too little time to address other important legislation – which is a major reason why the General Assembly has earned a well-deserved reputation for time-wasting.

When my colleagues and I have raised this subject with lawmakers, several of them have dismissed the budget law as “archaic.” We all wish we could decide which state laws were “archaic” and which we felt like following, but it’s fortunate that we don’t have that luxury. Neither do our politicians.

According to the law, the governor’s executive budget must be submitted to the legislature no later than Jan. 23, and House and Senate budget committees must hold joint open hearings on that spending plan by Feb. 4.

Those hearings should happen.

Barton Swaim is communications director at the South Carolina Policy Council.

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