THE CONVENTIONAL wisdom is that Gov. Nikki Haley doomed any chance she had of reviving the Budget and Control Board abolition effort when she and the treasurer and comptroller general thumbed their noses at the Legislature and likely the constitution with their vote to make state employees pay more for their medical insurance.
And indeed, their apparently unauthorized action does play into the argument of legislators who say our governors can’t be trusted with the sort of executive authority that governors in the rest of the nation take for granted. If a weak governor would so blithely usurp legislative authority, they say, imagine what dangers await our state if we ever gave a governor real power.
But indulge me as I explore an alternative interpretation: that the board’s power grab actually illustrates why we should abolish this hermaphroditic anachronism.
The Budget and Control Board is a uniquely S.C. institution composed of the governor, treasurer, comptroller general and the chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees, who together oversee a massive state agency that shares its name and handles the central administrative functions of the government. The Legislature came agonizingly close to abolishing it this year — that is, if you believe legislative leaders were ever serious about the effort. But that’s another story.
The five-member board also has extensive policy-making authority, even though policy is supposed to be made by the Legislature. So while we normally talk about it usurping power from the governor, the fact is that even when it acts within the law, it also usurps power from the Legislature.
It is a well-established principle in this nation that the power of the purse resides within the legislative branch. Some legislatures leave more spending discretion to the executive than ours does, but even in states with powerful governors, the legislature must pass the budget. And if the legislature passes a budget that gives state employees a raise, state employees get a raise. If the legislature passes a budget that pays for employee health-insurance premium increases, the state pays for those increases.
Except, at least for the moment, in South Carolina.
In South Carolina, Gov. Haley, Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom and Treasurer Curtis Loftis voted to make state employees pay part of the premium increase, because they didn’t like the policy decision that the Legislature made about how to spend state revenue.
The fact that anyone can even dream up a legal argument to justify this action (it’s not a good legal argument, but it is an argument) demonstrates just how perverted our whole concept of governance is.
A governor has a legitimate role in determining how revenue is spent, through her first draft of the budget, lobbying for that budget and the line-item veto. If Gov. Haley didn’t like the Legislature’s decision, she could have vetoed the funding. (Yes, I know she couldn’t get to the $6 million she wanted to excise, so she had to either accept the full $21 million or veto it all, but, you know, we aren’t guaranteed easy choices.)
The controller and treasurer, on the other hand, should not have any say in how the state spends money. In fact, it’s hard to come up with a good reason for having either position filled by election — and certainly not both. Yet they have equal say with the governor in running the state’s central administrative agency — and equal say with the Legislature in several budgetary matters.
While the board seems to have overstepped its legal bounds in this instance, it routinely performs legislative functions as a matter of law.
When revenue comes up short in the middle of the year, the Budget and Control Board essentially rewrites the budget, by making across-the-board cuts; it has even done this while the Legislature was in session.
When individual agencies overspend, the board declares an emergency and authorizes them to ignore the budget passed by the Legislature, and spend money they don’t have.
When state agencies want to use the borrowing power the Legislature has granted them, the Budget and Control Board must give its blessing.
There are practical reasons for letting the board handle mid-year budget matters, but that doesn’t change the fact that those are legislative decisions, which are being made by a group of two legislators and three executive officials.
And when you give elected, executive-branch officials the authority to make decisions that clearly should be made by the Legislature, you shouldn’t be surprised when they take some liberties.
I’m no fan of the Public Employee Benefits Authority that was created this year to oversee the state employee pension and health-insurance programs — and less so since its creation was not accompanied by the abolition of the Budget and Control Board, as it was supposed to have been.
But it’s hard to imagine that the authority — or any agency, for that matter — would have said, we realize the Legislature put $21 million in the budget to pay for the premium increase, and we know it was no accident, because covering the employee portion of the cost was near the top of every legislator’s brag list, but we want to leave $5 million of that in the bank and make state employees and retirees pay that part instead.
Charging people more for a state-provided benefit is what some of our most strident fiscal conservatives call a fee increase. And under different circumstances, they’d huff and puff about how this latest renegade action once again demonstrates the need to strip state agencies of the power to raise fees without legislative approval. And they’d have a pretty good point.
The Budget and Control Board is, by law, a renegade agency. It’s extra-legal activities simply highlight the problem.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571.