Haley, board should reverse course on premiums

August 12, 2012 

‘IT SCARES me,” Gov. Nikki Haley said last week, to think that the Legislature has the authority to make a decision each year about how much of the cost of state employee health-insurance premiums the taxpayers will pick up.

Frankly, it scares us to realize that we have a governor who doesn’t understand the basic underpinnings of government in the United States, not just in strong-legislative states such as ours but in strong-governor states: The legislative branch writes and rewrites laws whenever it wants to. The governor has the power to veto bills and individual items in the budget, but once that process is through, the executive branch implements the law. Whether it was wise or not. Whether the governor or anyone else likes it or not.

It scares us to see how careless our governor is about whether she has the legal authority to do whatever it is she wants to do.

Do not be confused by her political arguments: The issue before the Budget and Control Board on Wednesday was not whether state employees and retirees should have to pay part of their insurance-premium increases. Frankly, we think the governor and Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom and Treasurer Curtis Loftis make a reasonable argument that they should. The issue was who has the legal authority to decide.

At best, at best, it is legally questionable whether the Budget and Control Board had the authority. The law empowers the executive branch to adjust rates “to insure the fiscal stability of the system.” But the fiscal stability was not at stake, because the Legislature put $21 million in this year’s budget to cover the entire cost of the premium increase. Even the board’s attorney said at one point, “I don’t believe that the General Assembly’s appropriation can be disregarded.”

And yet, that is precisely what the governor and her two sidekicks did.

And it’s scary.

Being governor is not like being president of your neighborhood association. A governor can’t just do whatever she feels like doing, without bothering to make sure she has the authority to act. Yes, the board members questioned their attorney for 30 minutes; but the answers were shaky at best.

Employee-benefit law is extremely complex, filled with legal minefields. To change it without a thorough vetting, on such uncertain authority, in direct contradiction to the clearly stated desire of the Legislature, is reckless. At best.

The governor said the decision would merely be reversed if a court ruled that it acted illegally. Ho hum; no big deal.

We should be so lucky. The decision would indeed be reversed. And the taxpayers would pay any additional damages the court imposed — and whatever legal fees Dick Harpootlian charged. Like we haven’t done that enough already.

Senate President Pro Tem John Courson, who along with House Speaker Bobby Harrell declared the action lawless, called on the board to reverse its decision. That is precisely what it should do. And if it refuses, then Messieurs Courson and Harrell will have to consider using the power they clearly do have to call the Legislature back to session to rein in a rogue board.

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