What’s in the S.C. State Budget?

 

. . . A LOT THAT YOU’LL NEVER KNOW ABOUT. HERE’S WHY.

Over the last two years, the Policy Council has repeatedly stressed the importance of a law that legislators routinely and casually ignore. When told about the state’s open budget law and/or asked why it’s not followed, lawmakers have had one of several responses.

  1. It’s antiquated. As Rep. Mike Pitts explained recently, “There are a lot of antiquated laws on the books that I don’t feel are pertinent now.” (Indeed, Pitts has since filed a bill to delete the provision.)
  2. It’s unconstitutional. Rep. Brian White, Ways and Means Chairman, put it this way: “I think the statute is old, and the constitution trumps statute.” One sometimes gets the feeling that state lawmakers don’t grasp the difference between their personal dislike of a law and the law’s “unconstitutionality.” In any case, the argument here is that, since the Constitution stipulates that an appropriations bill must begin in the House (see Article III, Section 15), it necessarily can’t begin in the way the open budget law oulines – i.e. as a proposed executive budget dealt with by a joint committee made up of House and Senate members. Of course, if that were a valid argument, it would make the entire executive budget unconstitutional since that budget doesn’t originate in the legislative branch at all. It’s strange, therefore, that lawmakers who think 11-11-90 “unconstitutional” have never raised that objection with regard to the executive budget. In any case, the “argument,” if that’s what it is, is a shallow one: After the joint open hearings, the budget bill would be introduced in the House as legislation.
  3. General incomprehension. As Sen. Larry Martin recently put it, “It appears to be an antiquated provision … We don’t do that. We’ve never done it. Why have a statute requiring us to do it?” It’s unclear what kind of logic could address this objection.
  4. The budget is already open to the public. That objection is technically true and yet totally false. A process involving innumerable subcommittee and committee meetings, some scheduled simultaneously, most “publicly announced” in the most obscure ways, is not “open to the public” in any meaningful sense. No member of the public – indeed, barely any member of the news media – can follow the state budget except by attending an odd committee meeting that offers only a fraction of a picture of the state spending plan. The law, by contrast, envisions a process in which the entire state budget is dealt with at the very beginning in one high-profile forum. (We’ve dealt more fully with this objection here.)

In short, the objections to following the 11-11-90 and 11-11-100 of the law code are not serious.

At the same time, there are a number of excellent arguments for following the law. Obviously, the most important of these is that it’s the law, and laws should be followed or abolished, not ignored. And there is the fact that, under the current practice, not even seasoned reporters on the state budget beat have any clue what’s actually in the state spending plan until very late in the process – if at all.

But there are other, equally compelling reasons to urge lawmakers to follow this law – and these are to be found in the recently passed House Ways and Means budget. Here are just three items (there are hundreds more like them) that will strike many, perhaps most taxpayers as an outrageous waste of public money – and yet they received no debate or any kind of attention at all, and will likely receive none in the future.

  1. The budget currently includes $13.2 million in non-recurring money (in addition to $8 million in recurring money) for the Deal Closing Fund. That’s a fund specifically designed for the Commerce Department to give to private companies – many of them billion-dollar multinationals – in exchange for promises to expand or increase investments.
  2. It also includes a $6.5 million increase for the Department of Agriculture. That’s a 131.5 percent increase. In the line there is $3 million for the farmers market and $2 million for “marketing.”
  3. The budget includes $5 million for a “Business Incubator Program.” This is for … well, we don’t exactly know what it’s for – which is the problem.

These items are already in the state budget. They could be voted out, but because the current budget practice effectively shields them from public scrutiny, the likelihood is that they’ll be in the final ratified budget that goes to the governor in the spring. There will likely be no discussion, no debate, no scrutiny of any of these – and there are hundreds more like them.

One other danger should be pointed out. State law allows the legislature to appropriate “anticipated” federal funds (see the law here). In effect, this means lawmakers could go ahead and appropriate funds for a Medicaid expansion before any legal authority actually accepts the money. Next year, having appropriated the funds, the state would be practically obligated to take the money in earnest and expand its Medicaid rolls. In other words: Rather than debating Medicaid expansion in the open, lawmakers have the option of hiding the money in the budget.

Now, about that open budget law …

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