The Herald recently published a well-informed editorial on Gov. Nikki Haley’s view that South Carolina governors should be given the “reduction veto,” a power that would allow her to reduce the amounts appropriated to a program rather than vetoing the entire program. The editorial is correct to point out that, whatever the merits of the reduction veto, the Legislature is highly unlikely to grant it to her, chiefly because key legislators are opposed to it.
The editorial concludes: “Instead of trying to broaden her powers to cut the budget, Haley might get better results by working more closely with lawmakers to help fashion the budget and persuade them to include her priorities. It’s a collaborative process requiring compromise, and she could be part of that process from the start rather than asserting her authority at the end.”
It’s certainly true that the governor should be more a part of the budget process than she is. Whether Gov. Haley could remedy this by simply “working more closely with lawmakers” is doubtful: experience suggests that South Carolina lawmakers are just not interested in working with any governor on his or her overarching priorities unless those priorities happen to fall into line with those of legislative leaders.
But leave that aside. As it happens, state law requires the governor to be more involved with the budget process. In fact, sections 11-11-15, 11-11-90, and 11-11-100 of the 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 else: the governor submits an executive budget (Gov. Sanford started the practice) and the Legislature simply ignores it. To my knowledge, those “joint open meetings” haven’t taken place in decades – if they ever did at all.
But they should – and not just because it’s the law. 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 than is possible now.
Under the bewilderingly complex system currently practiced, the budget process begins when several House Ways and Means subcommittees write portions of the budget, each taking testimony from a variety of state agency representatives; the subcommittees then 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.
True enough, all these meetings are “open to the public,” but it is practically 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 code, 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 and media.
Not only would these hearings provide genuine transparency to the budget process – not merely the nominal “transparency” of allowing anyone to attend innumerable subcommittee meetings dealing with small sections of the budget. It would also 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 late spring. The consequence is that there is too little time to address other important legislation – which is why in recent years the General Assembly has earned a well-deserved reputation for time-wasting.
When Policy Council staffers 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 11-11-90 of the law code, the deadline for House and Senate budget committees to hold joint open hearings will fall on Jan. 22. But don’t hold your breath.
Barton Swaim is communications director at the South Carolina Policy Council.