How Lawmakers Have Made Themselves FTEs

‘IF THEY BELIEVE THEY AREN’T BEING PROPERLY COMPENSATED
FOR THE WORK THEY DO, THEY SHOULD REDUCE THEIR WORKLOAD’

Watch the General Assembly long enough and you’re sure to hear the popular complaint about how South Carolina lawmakers are underpaid. Rep. Bruce Bannister (R-Greenville) recently proposed an amendment to a budget bill to provide a substantial pay increase to officials in all three branches of state government. To support his amendment, Rep. Bannister cited a 2013 study that found South Carolina lawmakers earned less than the regional or national average for lawmakers, although the study omitted some forms of payment that would actually push South Carolina legislators above the regional average. In an unsurprising twist, The Nerve found last year that this study was actually commissioned by lawmakers and paid for with public money.

But even if lawmakers were forced to concede this study’s failings, lawmakers would no doubt keep complaining that they are underpaid. That’s because – as lawmakers frequently remind us – they are salaried as “part-time” lawmakers but the job itself is full-time.

There are several problems with this argument. First, the compensation received by lawmakers is not inconsistent with that received by many full-time employees. Second, to the extent that lawmakers are full-time and not part-time employees, the problem is entirely of their own making. Legislators have pushed bills increasing their responsibilities, ignored other bills and laws that would streamline their work, and wasted countless time on empty gestures, all of which have had the effect of lengthening the time they spend on “state business.” As with most issues debated at the State House, considering a pay raise because the legislature has gone from part-time to supposedly full-time over the years ignores the underlying problem – that lawmakers have created the problem in the first place.

Ignoring the budget law

Every year lawmakers begin session by ignoring the law requiring the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee sit in joint open meetings to consider the governor’s budget. Instead of following the law, lawmakers largely ignore the governor’s spending plan and begin a long painstaking process of crafting a different budget in each chamber (beginning with the Ways and Means and Finance Committees) which must then be reconciled in a conference committee and passed by both chambers again.

Simply following the law would not only make the process more transparent for citizens; it could vastly reduce the amount of time spent crafting separate budgets and then debating their differences. This time reduction would be achieved by making each chamber’s priorities clear to the other at the outset, and by eliminating the needlessly duplicative process of having representatives of state agencies testify separately to each committee (and even subcommittees) about their budget needs. Following the open budget hearings (which could include agency testimony), the amended governor’s budget could be introduced in the House where it would already be far ahead of where it would be at the same time under the current budget process.

The current extra-legal process has made it all but impossible to finish he budget within a reasonable time frame, sometimes even necessitating continued budget meetings long after the end of the formal session and even after the end of the fiscal year.

The 2015 legislative year is now in its second week of extended session, and we can expect at least one more week for the legislature to address the governor’s vetoes.

But what exactly have lawmakers done to make their jobs nearly full-time?

Serving on and overseeing other branches of government

South Carolina state government is dominated by its legislature. This is manifest in the involvement of the legislature in the other branches of government.

On the executive side, members of the legislature make more than more than 420 appointments to executive branch boards and commissions. Some lawmakers also serve on commissions with executive functions. Two of the most significant are the Budget and Control Board (now the State Fiscal Accountability Authority) – run by a five-member board that includes two legislators – and the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB), which provides loans to local governments for transportation projects (members include the Senate President Pro Tem). Lawmakers have even passed laws that specifically exempt them from the constitution’s prohibitions on dual office holding in order to allow lawmakers to continue performing executive functions and serving on state boards.

Lawmakers recently made this executive meddling problem far worse, and at the same time vastly expanded their own responsibilities. The much-lauded Department of Administration/restructuring bill ( Act 121), which reshuffled agencies rather than genuinely reestablishing separation of powers, increased legislative oversight of the executive branch by requiring House and Senate Committees to conduct oversight studies and investigations into every executive body within their jurisdiction every seven years. In other words, lawmakers were so keen on preserving their own power that they inadvertently created responsibilities for themselves that they were totally incapable of fulfilling.

On the judicial side, South Carolina is one of only two states where members of the legislature both screen and elect judges. This system, in addition to taking up long hours of legislative time, increases the possibility of biased judges who may be inclined to favor the legislators who elected them.

Wasting time with resolutions & introductions

Over the course of this year’s regular legislative session lawmakers passed 124 bills and/or joint resolutions. Over the same period they passed 830 resolutions of congratulations, honor, sympathy, and memorialization. Nor is this the first year when lawmakers have introduced and passed an inordinate number of mostly meaningless resolutions. Introducing a plethora of resolutions has become common practice for the legislature. The Nerve reported on this trend in 2012 and 2013.

Most resolutions are not only frivolous but include introductions or speeches about the subject that waste legislative time and thus taxpayer money. These resolutions and accompanying introductions are one reason why South Carolina has the fourteenth longest legislative session in the country.

No appetite for reform

All of the issues listed above contribute to increased responsibilities and/or time spent by lawmakers at the capitol. Yet lawmakers have shown little desire for actual reform.

Rather than attempting to legally reduce the oversight of the legislature over the executive branch the Senate attempted this year to push the legislative oversight required by the restructuring bill into the hands of the Senate Clerk’s Office. Senators want authority over executive bodies, but not the work that comes with it.

As for the judiciary, the 2015 legislative year saw bills introduced in both the House and Senate that would give the governor authority to nominate judges. Most lawmakers apparently had little interest in such legislation; the bills never even left committee.

The House and Senate also both introduced bills that would legally mandate a shorter legislative session (another component of SCPC’s reform agenda). The House bill crossed over to the Senate before faltering, but the Senate bills never even made it past committee.

Conclusion

If lawmakers believe they aren’t being properly compensated for the amount of work they do, they can and should reduce their workload. Reducing the amount of time members of the legislature spend on executive or outright unnecessary matters would free up time for lawmakers to use on private ventures. Doing so would also save taxpayer money and, even more importantly, help to restore transparency and the proper separation of powers.

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Category: Commentary, Reform & Restructuring · Tags: