When writing the state budget: Follow the law

State law says the Legislature writes the budget. Right? Wrong.

The background

For decades, South Carolina lawmakers have cobbled together the state budget with little input from anyone but lobbyists and bureaucrats. Except for vetoes on the back end, the governor had almost no influence on the budget.

In 2003, Governor Sanford broke tradition by submitting a detailed spending plan for all of state government. Yet Sanford’s budgets played no role in prioritizing state spending. Lawmakers said, in effect, The budget is what WE say it is.

The consequences

With the governor excluded from the process, no-one brings a statewide perspective to the budget. Instead, the entire process is dominated by a few powerful lawmakers’ local and political concerns.

Every year, the result is the same: notoriously wasteful spending, rampant duplication of services, special favors galore, and a lack of transparency throughout the entire process. In South Carolina, the state budget isn’t a coherent product with clear priorities; it’s a hodgepodge of spending items that might or might not have anything to do with the state’s best interests.

The law

The most important way we can reform that process isn’t by changing the law, but by following it. The South Carolina Code of Law mandates that the governor submit the first draft of the budget, and that lawmakers consider changes to that budget in joint open hearings – something that’s never happened in modern South Carolina history.

•   Section 11-11-15 explicitly gives budget-writing authority to the governor. “In preparing the state budget,” the law says, “the governor may consult with the state treasurer, the comptroller general, or other state officials as needed.”

•   Section 11-11-70 requires that printed copies of the governor’s budget must be submitted to the presiding officers of both House and Senate. The budget should consist of a “complete and itemized plan of all proposed expenditures for each state department.” This isn’t a list of broad guidelines; this is a detailed spending plan.

•   Section 11-11-90 requires that within five days after the governor submits the budget, the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means Committees “shall sit jointly in open sessions while considering the budget.”

•   And Section 11-11-100 allows that “the General Assembly may increase or decrease items in the budget bill as it may deem to be in the interest of greater economy and efficiency in the public service.”

The law is clear, and it’s wise. Shouldn’t lawmakers follow it?

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