Check-in: Budget transparency hits a new low

Transparency for taxpayers hit a new low this week. On Wednesday and Thursday, the S.C. Senate held a total of nine budget subcommittee hearings – the most it has held in one week since session began. Not one was streamed to the public.  

According to meeting agendas, 36 state agencies presented their budget requests to lawmakers without audio/video streaming or recording, denying the public easy access to what was said as lawmakers deliberated spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. These agencies included the Department of Social Services, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Employment and Workforce, the University of South Carolina, and many more.  

According to Senate Finance Committee staff, limited meeting minutes are kept, though they must be requested and are not posted online.

By our count, only one Senate budget subcommittee hearing has been streamed this year, which heard presentations from criminal justice agencies on February 9.  

Encouraging transparency 

SCPC has been tracking budget meetings throughout the 2022 legislative session, primarily to encourage a more transparent budget process, but also because lawmakers publicly stated they would do better on this issue last year.  

Budget subcommittee meetings are more important than one might think based on the relatively little attention they receive. Sorted by category, state agencies are given the opportunity to present their budget requests directly to lawmakers in a public setting, and lawmakers can respond with questions about the supposed spending needs (though we would like to see more questions asked).

The data collected here is eventually sent to the full House or Senate budget-writing committee. The House Ways and Means Committee, which goes first in this process, used its subcommittees’ findings to pass the first legislative draft of the FY22-23 budget last month (which can be found in its raw form here).   

But when these meetings aren’t streamed, taxpayers are deprived of the opportunity to engage in the budget process as it plays out. While it is true that meetings are open to the public, in-person attendance is not feasible for many residents, nor should it be expected of them, given that meetings are often cancelled and rescheduled with little notice.

The short-term solution is simple: all legislative committee meetings should be streamed. This is an obvious first step lawmakers can take to improve transparency and engagement in the budget process. If they can’t find the money and means to make this happen with state government’s anticipated $4.6 billion revenue surplus, we have a serious problem.  

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