Back scratching, at expense of SC taxpayers

A cohort at the S.C. Policy Council recently detailed one the most egregious examples of do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do that I’ve seen in a long, long while.

Rick Brundrett highlighted the fact that while South Carolina state law required state agencies to have filed their proposed budgets for the upcoming fiscal year by last Nov. 1, the state’s General Assembly apparently doesn’t feel itself beholden to that statute.

In fact, both the S.C. House and S.C. Senate routinely unveil their proposed budgets months after other state agencies have done so, according to Brundrett’s story in The Nerve.

Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, a state lawmaker on the House’s budget-writing committee, even acknowledged that the normal budget-hearing process traditionally hasn’t been applied to House or Senate chamber budgets.

What that means is legislative leaders can add in large budget increases for their respective chambers much later, typically at the very end of the legislative session, when the media and public are focused on the budget as a whole, rather than individual aspects.

Brundrett pointed out that the House quietly slipped in a $2.3 million increase for itself for this fiscal year on the last day for regular legislative business last June.

And the year before the Senate gave itself a hike of nearly $5 million, a boost which wasn’t first publicly proposed until more than three months after the General Assembly was in session.

One thing to be said for lawmakers – they’re relatively honest in their duplicity.

Merrill said his subcommittee doesn’t plan on holding any formal hearings on the chambers’ proposed budgets, as is typically done with other state agencies, Brundrett reported.

“It’s probably a little less formal than some of the other agencies,” Merrill said. “Generally, they (the Senate) will give us their budget, and we will give them ours. We generally don’t tamper with each other’s budgets.”

Wouldn’t every state agency like to have this kind of carte blanche? You submit your proposed budget to someone, they submit theirs to you, you both wink and everything’s approved. Nice arrangement.

This lack of accountability is particularly reprehensible given that, despite the state’s budget woes of the past few years, the House and Senate have carried over millions in unspent tax dollars annually in recent years, authorized through little-known state budget provisos passed by lawmakers.

The House, for example, carried over $5.8 million into this fiscal year; the Senate carried over $4 million, Office of State Budget records show.

Those amounts represent more than 30 percent of this fiscal year’s general fund appropriations of approximately $18.7 million for the House and $12.4 million for the Senate.

When those amounts are combined with general and “supplemental” appropriations, the House will have nearly $24.6 million to spend this year, according to Office of State Budget records. The Senate’s available funds total about $16.6 million.

“To put how much tax dollars flow through House and Senate chambers into some perspective, the collective $31 million in general appropriations for the Legislature this fiscal year is larger than the total ratified budgets of at least 50 state agencies or divisions, OSB records show,” Brundrett reported.

Finally, the House and Senate looks like it’s a pretty good gig if you can land a job in either chamber. As of August, 89 staffers in both chambers earned at least $50,000 annually, with the top salaries reaching more than $140,000, according to a state salary database.

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