The State Budget Shouldn’t Take This Long

WHY THE BUDGET TAKES HALF A YEAR TO PASS, AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

It has become an almost yearly tradition for the South Carolina General Assembly to use its time so inefficiently that important legislation – including the state budget – doesn’t pass before session concludes on the first Thursday in June. With the budget still in the Senate, along with controversial and complicated legislation on ethics reform, transportation funding, and government restructuring, it seems extremely unlikely that the budget will pass on time, meaning that lawmakers will have to pass a sine die revolution allowing them to return to the State House to deal with specified topics (in this case, the state budget).

Last year, lawmakers took so long to deal with the budget that the new fiscal year actually started before they could pass it. The legislature had to pass a continuing resolution in order to keep state government from shutting down. Lawmakers appear ready to do the same thing again this year: a continuing resolution is already making its way through the Senate (debate scheduled for 3:00 p.m. today).

Despite all this, both House and Senate leaders make much of their “furloughs.” These are periods in which the House or Senate does not meet, thus – legislative leaders claim – “saving taxpayer dollars.”  The House has taken three weeks off (a two-week furlough from March 25th to April 5th, and a one-week furlough the week of May 6th) while the Senate has taken two weeks off (the weeks of March 25th and April 5th). House Speaker Bobby Harrell was particularly proud of the House’s three weeks of furlough, claiming that each week off would save the state $50,000.

Now that legislators have wasted the ample time allotted to them to get their work done – and remember that South Carolina has one of the longest legislative sessions in the country – they’ll almost certainly have to come back to Columbia over the summer.

Which means that taxpayers won’t save that measly $150,000 after all, and that citizens will probably have to endure media reports that state government could shut down unless lawmakers come to some kind of agreement before July 1st (the first day of the new fiscal year). But the real trouble with the legislature failing to get the budget done in a timely way is that major legislation will have to be ignored or rushed through. Serious deliberation is the casualty here. Early on Tuesday, for example, in the rush to get a government restructuring bill through the Senate, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, asked which of the competing bills moved procurement services completely into the executive branch, initially couldn’t answer. Meanwhile on the House’s gigantic and complicated ethics proposal, senators who raise important questions about the details of the bill will be urged to keep their concerns quiet simply in order to get a bill passed.

There is no reason why the state budget should take up the entire legislative session – or, more accurately, more than the entire legislative session. Indeed, state law requires a much simpler and straightforward budget process in which the entire state spending plan is already drafted when the legislature begins meeting in January. The legislature’s role isn’t to write the entire budget from scratch through innumerable subcommittee and committee meetings, as is presently done twice every year, first in the House and then in the Senate. Its role, rather, is to hold “joint open meetings” on the governor’s spending plan, then to make adjustments to that plan as it deems necessary.

The present de facto budget process, in addition to being extra-legal, is grossly inefficient – with the almost yearly result that the budget crowds out other important legislation and often keeps politicians in Columbia well over half a year.

State law prescribes a better process. Taxpayers would be far better off if they simply followed it. And in any case, it’s the law.

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