Seven steps to make S.C. government more transparent
“Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show it can bear discussion and publicity.”- Lord Acton
The time for transparency is now
As technology and internet capabilities rapidly improve, there are fewer and fewer excuses for a lack of transparency in government. Public records once confined to hard paper copies and filing cabinets are now routinely digitized and made shareable with the click of a button. Details about government spending, policy and meetings, in theory, should be more accessible than ever before.
To its credit, South Carolina is making progress on this front. The Statehouse website, the official webpage for state legislative activity, is generally a helpful resource for citizens who want to learn about South Carolina’s lawmaking process. And across the state, a growing number of local governments and school boards are streaming their meetings voluntarily.
However, South Carolinians still face certain barriers to meaningful government transparency. To help remove them, we have put together the following seven policy recommendations, organized by category.
“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.” – James Madison
Livestream all school board meetings – When it comes to local governance, few entities have more power and influence than school boards. They control school budgets, dictate property taxes, hire superintendents, and set local education policy, among other responsibilities.
Given their impact on the community, state legislators in 2022 wisely pushed a bill to require all school boards to livestream their meetings and post the video recordings online, though unfortunately it did not pass. At the time, we learned that roughly two-thirds of school boards stream their meetings voluntarily.
Lawmakers must revisit this legislation in 2023. Once passed, parents and taxpayers across the state will have a reliable way to stay engaged with their local school boards without having to physically attend meetings, a move that will bring much more accountability to the local education system.
Livestream all legislative meetings – A simple way to improve transparency in our lawmaking process is to ensure that all legislative committee and subcommittee meetings are livestreamed, and that those video files are archived for later viewing.
Legislative committees have the important job of reviewing and approving bills before they reach the House and Senate floor, and bills will often be modified by committee members in the process. The House and Senate budget committees, meanwhile, are in a league of their own, as they have the added responsibility of writing the first drafts of the annual state budget.
The good news is that we are getting closer to the goal of total livestreaming. Based on our research, we found that five core legislative committees had a streaming rate of at least 90% during the 2021-22 session, a major improvement over previous years.
We recommend that livestreaming and video archiving be legally required for legislative committee/subcommittee meetings. At the very least, this should be mandated under the House and Senate rules. In the meantime, we would encourage all committee chairs to voluntarily adopt a 100% streaming policy so that the public can better follow the legislative process.
“The same prudence, which, in private life, would forbid our paying our money for unexplained projects, forbids it in the disposition of public moneys.” – Thomas Jefferson
Follow the budget law – The good news is that South Carolina already has a common-sense budget accountability law on its books; the bad news is that state agencies never follow it.
When agencies submit their annual budget plans to the Governor’s Office, state law requires them to “justify the entire amount of money they are requesting.” This rule applies to both “recurring” (ongoing) expenses, along with any “new or additional expenses.” Despite this, agencies only provide explanations for new spending requests, as can be seen here.
The governor, through his Executive Budget Office, must begin enforcing this law and posting the full agency budget requests online. Doing so would provide taxpayers with a comprehensive annual breakdown of how state agencies are spending their money, old and new. More importantly, it would cut down on excessive spending by forcing lawmakers and the governor to start the budget process by evaluating agencies on what they have, not what they want.
Expand and codify earmark spending rules – Earmark spending – which generally refers to budget items requested by lawmakers, not state agencies – is a practice that has faced more public scrutiny in recent years, thanks in part to basic disclosure rules adopted by the House and Senate. While not inherently a bad thing, the earmark system has frequently been abused to fund inappropriate or unnecessary projects, with recent examples including an attempt to send money to a nonprofit headed by a legislator’s family member, and another to spend $25 million to create a “quantum supercomputer” center.
To bring more transparency and accountability to the budget process, we recommend the House and Senate earmark rules be expanded and codified.
First, earmarks should have to be requested in writing to the House or Senate budget chairmen. At a minimum, each request should include the following information:
- The legislative sponsor’s name
- The date requested
- The amount requested
- A description of the project in question and how the funds will be spent
- The full name of the recipient entity
Second, requests should be posted to a designated location on the Statehouse website, preferably the budget page, within 24 hours, thereby creating a real-time earmark transparency dashboard for the public. Currently there is a significant delay between when earmarks are requested and posted online, and the forms lack important details.
Finally, state law must ban earmarks from going to any organization whose governing board includes a legislator or a legislator’s immediate family member, and require that all private earmark recipients be properly registered with the Secretary of State’s Office.
“… Public records are one portal through which the people observe their government, ensuring its accountability, integrity, and equity while minimizing sovereign mischief and malfeasance.” – Sandra Day O’Conner
Access to public records
Post legislative committee records online – The House and Senate legislative committees are integral parts of South Carolina’s lawmaking process, and citizens should have better access to the records presented at these meetings. We recommend that all documents introduced and circulated at committee hearings be posted to each committee’s page on the Statehouse website, ideally within 24 hours.
In our review, we found mixed results for the current availability of committee records online. Of the core legislative committees, the House Ways and Means Committee, Senate Education Committee and Senate Medical Affairs Committee appear to be the most diligent when it comes to publishing documents.
We encourage all committees to begin posting these records voluntarily; however, comprehensive and reliable transparency cannot be expected unless records disclosure becomes the law.
Pursue comprehensive local government transparency – Our recommendation to boost transparency in local government is simple: Revisit this excellent bill introduced in 2021, which would require counties, municipalities and school boards to publish a helpful list of public information online. This information includes, but is not limited to:
- Contact information for elected officials and important staff
- Agendas at least three days in advance of meetings
- A detailed list of public employee compensation
- All budgets, audits and financial reports
- A detailed list of all taxes and fees imposed
- A searchable database with revenue sources and expenditures
The bill serves as an excellent template for what comprehensive local transparency should look like. However, we also recognize that it is an ambitious proposal and do not expect every item it contains to pass overnight, or all at once. The goal ultimately is for taxpayers to have as much access to important local records as possible.
As an additional measure, it would be helpful for the public if school boards and other local government bodies posted supporting documents, such as proposed ordinances and working papers, as soon as possible prior to meetings.
“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.” – Patrick Henry
Include every agency in the state salary database – When it comes to salary transparency for public employees, South Carolina is on the right track. Citizens can easily find salaries for most state employees earning more than $50,000, thanks to the Department of Administration’s (Admin) online salary database. The issue, however, is that 16 state entities are excluded from the list, including the state Judicial Department, House and Senate staff, Santee Cooper and the Port’s Authority. Why is this?
Part of the problem is that some agencies are statutorily exempt from Admin’s internal personnel system, meaning the department doesn’t have access to those specific salary records. Despite their absence from the database, however, all public employee salaries over $50,000 are considered public record.
While technically public, often the only way to obtain this information is by submitting a Freedom of Information (FOI) request – a process which can be slow and costly. Sometimes, even an FOI doesn’t work. Earlier this year, SCPC was forced to hire a law firm on behalf of The Nerve – our investigative news site – just to get updated salary records from the state Judicial Department.
We recommend that all state agencies be required to provide salary records to Admin so they can be included in the database. If not through Admin, these records should be posted somewhere online that is easily accessible. In the meantime, we encourage those missing agencies to provide the records voluntarily so that citizens can better see how their tax dollars are being spent.