Scoppe: Legislature, not Haley, to blame for budget debacle

Associate EditorAugust 9, 2012 

THERE’S BEEN a lot of finger-pointing since the Arts Commission and the Sea Grant Consortium went dark and a few dozen state employees were unexpectedly if temporarily thrust into the unemployment line after Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed their funding.

So before we close the door on the discussion of the governor’s budget vetoes, it’s worth taking a moment to understand who’s to blame — and what we need to do to prevent this sort of thing happening in the future.

And before we start that discussion, a word of explanation about why the temporary closure of the agencies was a problem: Although this did not cause a major problem for government — no critical services were interrupted, because neither agency provides critical services — it caused a significant problem for human beings. The 40 employees of those agencies were essentially laid off, and locked out of their offices, without even a day’s advance warning.

Now it’s perfectly appropriate, if unfortunate, for our state to eliminate jobs, and human beings suffer when that happens. But this was not a case where our leaders decided to do that; the governor decided to do it, almost certainly knowing that the Legislature would easily overrule her. Those people who lost their jobs, and who will never get the money they had counted on receiving to pay their mortgage and grocery bills and other expenses unless the Legislature passes a special law to restore their pay, should not have had to suffer that loss.

So, where to place blame?

It’s true that Gov. Haley is the one who vetoed the funding, without any sort of transition plan. That was irresponsible. All the more so because it was a low-risk opportunity to appeal to her base, knowing as she must have that the Legislature wouldn’t let her get away with it, just like then-Gov. Mark Sanford knew the Legislature wouldn’t let him get away with one of his most irresponsible acts ever: vetoing the entire budget. In fact, some have suggested that we need to change the law to limit a governor’s ability to create such a disruption.

That is not the answer.

The governor made a decision that I and a lot of other people disagree with. Simply that, and nothing more. She did not misuse her power or abdicate her duties. She left that to the Legislature.

If the Legislature had gotten its work done on time — that is, a month earlier than it did — or if it had even gotten its work done before the drop-dead deadline — that is, a week earlier — then it could have overridden the vetoes before the 2011 fiscal year ended and the new budget took effect. It did not.

Nor can the Legislature defend the disruption by saying it had no way of expecting that the governor would do something so irresponsible. Ms. Haley vetoed the Arts Commission’s funding last year, and she told Charleston’s Post and Courier that she gave legislators at least two weeks’ notice that she planned to veto both agencies’ funding this year.

So even after failing to pass the budget on time, the Legislature still could have mitigated the damage by making plans to come back into session immediately after her vetoes were issued. Yet instead of scheduling a session for July 9, the next business day after the vetoes were due, lawmakers left town with their schedule up in the air, and didn’t return until July 17. As a result, what could have been a two-day problem turned into a two-week problem for state employees.

Some have used this legislatively created mess as an excuse to haul out their favorite all-purpose solution for what ails the Legislature: a shorter legislative session. But while there might be good reasons to shorten the session, this isn’t one of them.

The theory here is that legislators are notorious procrastinators, who will get their jobs done only if we give them a deadline. And that’s true. But they already have a deadline — the first Thursday in June. That’s when the state constitution says they have to adjourn. They blew past that deadline via a constitutional provision that allows them to continue working on a limited agenda with a two-thirds vote. Although lawmakers have managed to finish their work and leave town early on occasion, there’s nothing new about extending the session to wrap up loose ends. What was new this year was that they ignored that July 1 deadline for having a budget in place.

The problem with the give-them-a-deadline logic is that there’s no reason to think they would have done any differently if the constitution required them to adjourn in late May. Or early April, for that matter. The problem this year wasn’t that the Legislature didn’t have a deadline but that the House and Senate were deadlocked over the House’s demand that the Senate approve an unvetted, ill-considered tax cut.

The only way to make the deadline solution work is to take away lawmakers’ ability to extend the session. But the session extender isn’t a tool that they have abused; in fact, it has done more good than harm over the years, allowing legislators to wrap up their work in a usually orderly fashion without having to rely on the governor to call them back into session to finish — with the accompanying unlimited agenda and $250-per-day extra session pay for lawmakers.

No, the key to making sure we don’t have a mess like this again is both more straightforward and more difficult than any magic-bullet solutions: Legislators need to remember the consequences of their actions, and act responsibly.

Simply that, and nothing more.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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