South Carolina’s Endless Legislative Session

● South Carolina’s session is one of the nation’s longest
● Longer sessions mean lawmakers spending more time with lobbyists
● In South Carolina, there are about two lobbyists for every one lawmaker
● Last year, lobbyists in South Carolina made more than $15 million
● At least three current bills would significantly shorten session

South Carolina’s legislative session can seem endless. Running from the first Tuesday of January until the first Thursday of June – 21 weeks – the state’s session is the second longest in the Southeast and the 14th longest in the country. The median session length among all other states is 16 weeks. Our General Assembly sits from January to June or about 143 calendar days a year, and that doesn’t include the time lawmakers meet in committees virtually all year round.

Some contend that the legislature needs a longer session in order to give the General Assembly time to perform its most important function – passing a budget. Yet in recent years legislators have left much of the budget debate until the session’s last few weeks, and have regularly gone into extended sine die session to finalize a budget.

In any case, the budget should take far less time than it does. Members routinely ignore the state law mandating the House and Senate appropriation committees to hold joint open hearings on the executive budget – a law that, if followed, would cut the current budget process in half. Instead lawmakers begin the budget in a dizzying array of subcommittee hearings, making it impossible for the public and media to follow and turning the state budget into a gigantic grab bag full of miscellaneous favors to localities rather than a rational and coherent spending plan for the entire state. 

The real reason to shorten session?

Occasionally legislative leaders will claim that the reason we need to shorten session is to “save taxpayer dollars.” But although shortening the session would cut down on lawmakers’ state-funded travel and lodging expenses, and although a shorter session would require fewer resources in the State House, these “savings” would amount to a few hundred thousand dollars – microscopic by the standards of a $26 billion state budget. (Those few hundred thousand dollars wouldn’t be “saved” by taxpayers; they would merely be spent in some other part of state government.)

So what is the reason we ought to shorten South Carolina’s legislative session? There are actually two reasons: first, to limit the power of the legislature and, second, the influence of the special interests that feed on it.

On lobbying, a lengthier session gives lobbyists and consultants more time with legislators in Columbia. And the more time lobbyists have with legislators, the better chance those lobbyists will have to both (a) persuade legislators to pass special favors for particular groups, and (b) persuade lawmakers to kill needed reforms those groups perceive as harmful to themselves.

A few numbers can provide insight into the size of the lobbying machine at the State House. In 2014, the State Ethics Commission reported 389 registered lobbyists, 14 of them representing public agencies/institutions. The commission also reported 550 lobbyist principals, again 14 of those principals being public agencies/institutions. In 2014 alone, total income for all lobbyists was $15.7 million.

Clearly there are a great many organizations willing to spend large amounts of money to bend legislators – and thus state law – to their purposes.

And the longer session is, the more attractive investment in a lobbyist becomes. The more time lobbyists have with legislators, the better chance those lobbyists will have of convincing legislators to either pass bills favored by their clients – generally, special interests – or amend other bills to suit the interests of those clients.

But of course, special interests by definition seek advantage for themselves, not the good of the state as a whole – whatever they may say or believe about their motives. Consider, from just the last two years, a solar leasing bill (S.1189) turned into another avenue for monopolistic utilities to hike prices on consumers, and a ride-sharing legalization bill (H.3525) used to impose nearly all existing taxi regulations on ride sharing companies.  

On legislative power, the longer lawmakers remain in session, the more functions of government they arrogate to themselves. South Carolina government is dominated by the legislature precisely because, over time, the legislature has assumed many properly executive powers. Our legislature controls the judiciary through nominations and appointments for judgeships, and influences the executive branch by making more than 420 appointments to executive boards and commissions.

A few of the most powerful boards and commissions controlled by the legislature include: the Public Service Commission (which regulates utilities), the Joint Transportation Review Committee (which in effect appoints members of the Department of Transportation commission), and the State Board of Education (which sets public school policy and helps determine state educational standards). Some of the legislature’s members also serve directly on boards, such as the State Fiscal Accountability Authority and the Infrastructure Bank Board, which perform executive functions.

And just as a longer session contributes to a large number of lobbyists, the expansive powers of the legislature have led to the creation of an enormous legislative staff. The Nerve recently reported that as of March 2015 the House of Representatives employed 82 full time staffers, while the Senate employed 119. Nor is that all. In 2015 the House employed 37 legislative aides at an hourly rate, and had the option of employing up to 144 pages.

The total annual payroll for listed staffers in the General Assembly ranges from $12.3 to $12.7 million. Once again, a lengthy session has fostered the growth of legislative power, and the growth of legislative power has necessitated the creation of a burgeoning class of employees to meet the demands of that growth in power.  

We watched this dynamic play out recently when legislation creating the Department of Administration gave the legislature new oversight powers over the executive branch, which in turn required the creation of more staff to ensure that those new powers were executed.

A chance for reform? 

There are still some in the General Assembly pushing for reform. Lawmakers filed three bills in 2015 to reduce the length of session. The best by far is S.123, which would reduce session by eight weeks in odd-numbered years and twelve weeks in even-numbered years. It would also create a biennial state budget rather than the current annual budget; in other words, each budget would cover not one but two years of spending, as is done in Texas and elsewhere. The other bills, S.267 and H.3014, are weaker, reducing session by four and five weeks respectively.

The latter of these, H.3014, recently passed the House with near unanimous votes, but it comes with the drawback of requiring a constitutional amendment (it would change session’s start date, which is set by the constitution). Even if it were passed by the legislature and approved by the electorate, implementation would be delayed for years.

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