Government restructuring – Reform or status quo?

 

South Carolina elected officials claim to be restructuring government, but is anything changing?  Are we moving toward real separation of powers, or is the status quo being preserved?  Below are the major problems with the current plan, and the solutions that would finally make South Carolina’s government fully accountable to the citizens.

Bonding authority

Problem:  Legislators don’t take full responsibility for indebting taxpayers, but instead create a hybrid board to authorize bonds – just like the Budget and Control Board!  

Lawmakers have created a new hybrid board to split the authority to authorize state debt. Even worse, the makeup of the board is almost exactly that of the Budget and Control Board.  Furthermore, the current plan exempts some entities (such as the “Jobs and Economic Development Authority”) from authorization – meaning these agencies can authorize state debt on their own authority.

Solution:  Force legislators to fully debate all bonds and vote on the record to approve them. 

It’s time for legislators to do their job – they owe citizens a public vote every time the state indebts taxpayers.  No more “passing the buck” to an anonymous board that citizens can’t hold fully accountable.

Mid-year Budget Cuts

Problem: Lawmakers give an unelected, unaccountable state employee the authority to make mid-year budget cuts if they choose not to return to session!

When revenue falls short mid-year, the Budget and Control Board would impost across-the-board cuts, treating every agency and program equally.  That approach made no sense, but it certainly gave politicians political cover.  The current plan starts to do the right thing by requiring lawmakers back to Columbia if revenue falls short, but then they sneak in language that says if they don’t return within 15 days (for whatever reason!), the duty of cutting government spending falls to an unelected state employee in the State Budget Office.

Solution:  If there is a revenue shortfall in mid-year lawmakers must return to Columbia to make targeted cuts and face the public for their choices.

Lawmakers should be required to return in statewide session to make targeted budget cuts should the state face a revenue shortfall.  No more across-the-board cuts that avoid the tough choices; and certainly there should be no “out” that allows an unelected state agency official to do the job of the legislature.

Legislative Oversight of the Executive Branch

Problem: Legislators give committees investigative powers in state agencies, but leave the decision of which agencies are “investigated” to legislative leaders, and they allow committees to question and depose anyone – including private citizens!

This amendment is takes the restructuring plan from status quo to worse, and even dangerous.  Legislators already control most of state government through boards and commissions – the current proposal gives legislative leaders authority to decide which agencies are “investigated.” That will allow them to protect their own programs while potentially harassing agencies they don’t control.  Citizens cannot hold legislative leaders accountable for their choices and investigative practices.

The potential for abuse of power in this amendment  – which passed on a voice vote – is high. Private citizens aren’t protected from being deposed and questioned by legislative committees. Clearly no lawmaking body in the nation should have such power, but especially not in South Carolina where legislative leaders are already among the most powerful, least accountable politicians in the country.

Solution:  If the legislature is serious about oversight it should mandate regular audits conducted and made public by the Legislative Audit Council on a schedule that is mandated by law, not by politicians.

The Legislative Audit Council is already empowered to conduct thorough audits of state agencies, which are then made public.  A simple change mandating those audits of all agencies on a rolling, pre-determined schedule would take the politics out of the process and allow taxpayers to see where potential problems existed. This process would accomplish exactly what legislators claim they want – full, public auditing of state government without potential for abuse of power.

Procurement Oversight

The Problem:  The current plan allows legislators some authority over procurements – a direct conflict of interest given that legislators write the laws determining the specifics of the contracts, and also have a say in who gets the contracts.

Lawmakers should not have any authority to issue contracts and negotiated deals on behalf of the state.

The Solution:  Give all procurement powers directly to the Department of Administration, with no involvement by the legislature. 

Once the law is written, the Governor should have the authority to execute contracts, and all procurements should be made public by the Department of Administration.  If there is any wrongdoing or negligence in the process, taxpayers can hold one person directly accountable.

Board of Economic Advisers

The Problem: The person responsible for telling the legislature how much it can spend would be forced to report directly to unaccountable legislative leaders who appropriate the dollars.

Once again, the current plan preserves power for legislative leaders who are not accountable statewide. No state agency employee should report to legislators – the public cannot hold the legislature accountable for running state government.  If legislative leaders were inclined to “tweak” forecasts, it would be difficult to stop them.

The Solution: The chairman of the BEA should be appointed by the governor with advice and consent of the senate.

There should be oversight and due diligence when choosing the BEA chair, but once appointed the Chair should report to the governor, who is directly accountable for the accuracy and objectivity of revenue forecasting.

Retirement System

The Problem: Lawmakers do not establish the governance structure of the state’s retirement system, but instead appoint a “transition” committee of retirement system stakeholders.

The current plan allows the BCB to exist for another year to appoint the transition committee and oversee the process, thus preserving the Board and delaying necessary reform of the pension system.

The Solution:  Lawmakers should establish the retirement system as a cabinet agency directly accountable to the governor.

The Budget and Control Board should be immediately eliminated and any transition committee should be advisory only and comprised of objective members who are not stakeholders in the system, including an accountant, an economist, an actuary and a retirement planner.

Some Decisions Simply Don’t Make Sense

Some agency/duty assignments make no sense. For example:

The State Energy Office (SEO) is moved to the Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS).  Both entities are vague – the SEO appears to manage federal dollars and some regulations, while the ORS is supposed to represent the public in complaints against public utilities.  There is no logic behind one overseeing the other.  The SEO should be managed by the Department of Administration.

The Office of Precinct Demographics is moved under the House and Senate Clerks – that means the legislature (which draws district maps) has sole control of the data upon which they rely.   That data should be housed in the Election Commission and available to the public.

Unfortunately, none of the plans proposed has completely eliminated the Budget and Control Board and truly separated the powers. This leaves our state exactly where it has been for decades, even centuries: controlled by a handful of politicians who are not elected or accountable statewide. South Carolina politicians are busy “designing” a government when they should be restoring the Founders’ vision of government comprised of separate branches of power that check/balance each other but that do not hold more power over citizens than citizens hold over government.

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