Budget Vetoes: Were lawmakers even there?

THE BUDGET VETO “DEBATE” INVOLVED PRECIOUS LITTLE DEBATE

If you followed the coverage of the governor’s budget vetoes – rallies outside the State House, op-eds denouncing specific vetoes – you might had the impression that the debate was contentious inside the legislative chambers. It wasn’t. Both House and Senate ran through 81 budget vetoes in a mere two days, and there were very few moments when one noticed anything like debate.

True, lawmakers sustained 33 of the governor’s 81 vetoes. That sounds like a significant number until you look at the dollar amount of the sustained vetoes. The General Assembly only saw fit to uphold a tiny $4.2 million out of the governor’s already diminutive $57 million in cuts.

Many vetoes were overridden (or occasionally sustained) with hardly any discussion or hint of debate. In the House, ten vetoes were voted on with unanimous consent, including overrides for vetoes removing $250,000 to the Charles Lea Center, $453,680 for the SC Coalition against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, and a $1,000,000 proviso for vocational rehabilitation.

For fifteen other vetoes addressed by the House the margin of dissent was five votes or less.  Among these fifteen near unanimous votes were overrides for the bitterly complained of $3.4 million cut to the Arts Commission, the removal of $10 million in one-time funds for teacher raises, and $2.1 million for USC’s Palmetto College.

Similarly in the Senate, ten veto votes were nearly unanimous with five or fewer dissenting voices. These votes included overrides of a $500,000 cut for funds appropriated for Marketing and Branding at the Department of Agriculture, a $2.8 million cut for IT upgrades for the Judicial Department, a $700,000 cut to the Certificates of Need program (which in effect rations health equipment across the state), and of course the veto of a $10 million proviso for teacher raises.

Notably, debate was far more likely to follow a veto being sustained than it was during any initial reading of the veto. In the House, motions were made to reconsider and vote once again on five different vetoes originally sustained by the chamber, while in the Senate ten out of twelve vetoes originally sustained were brought back for a second vote.

Out of these fifteen vetoes originally sustained which were brought up for reconsideration only one failed to be overridden. Even in cases where lawmakers appeared to be steadfast in support of a veto, as in the case of the veto of a $10 million transfer from the National Mortgage Settlement Fund to the corporate welfare vehicle called the Deal Closing Fund, legislators failed to hold firm and the second vote saw an override of the veto.

With a few notable exceptions, the vast preponderance of lawmakers seem to have come into the veto debate firmly convinced that the 2012-13 state budget – a $23.6 billion document – needed very few, if any, reductions. Votes were frequently unanimous or near-unanimous, debate was minimal, and the few flare-ups that did occur generally had to do with vetoes that had somehow been sustained – and those were almost all overturned.

A casual observer could be forgiven for concluding that, in South Carolina, the legislature does what it wants, when it wants, how it wants, with little input from anyone – even the state’s chief executive.

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