Columbia, SC — LAST YEAR, 11 weeks elapsed from the time the Senate passed legislation to dismantle the Budget and Control Board until the time the House rewrote the bill and sent it back to the Senate.
This year, 12 weeks elapsed from the time the Senate passed legislation that is nearly identical to last year’s bill until the time the House rewrote it, in a way that is nearly identical to what it passed last year, and sent it back to the Senate.
That extra week doesn’t sound like a big deal until you recall why the House and Senate are passing bills this year that are nearly identical to the bills they passed last year: Last year, even though both bodies voted overwhelmingly for the legislation, and negotiators reached a reasonable compromise, the Legislature adjourned for the year without passing the bill, because opponents managed to run the clock and prevent a final vote in the Senate.
That extra week doesn’t bode well for a reform effort that has been on the legislative agenda for a decade and that has been needed for, oh, I don’t know, a half century?
Fortunately, the week’s delay is fairly easy to make up — but it needs to be made up now.
Last year, it took 20 days after the House and Senate passed their separate versions of the bill before legislators sent them to conference committee to work out the differences. That’s because the Senate waited a week before getting around to refusing to go along with the House changes, and the House waited another week to insist on its changes, and the Senate waited nearly another week to appoint conference committee members.
Did I mention that these are routine steps in the process whenever there are significant differences between the House and Senate versions of a bill? Steps that could all be taken in, oh, a week’s time. At most.
Which is what should happen this year. This week.
Last year, once the House and Senate got around to appointing their negotiators, it took them 29 days to reach an agreement. And they probably wouldn’t have finished that soon but for the fact that the legislative session was to end the next day.
Did I mention that the legislators who were adamant about particular points made the differences between the House and Senate versions seem mammoth, but the truth was that either version would have marked the most significant governmental reform our state has seen in two decades? And that both versions of the bill were exponentially better than what even the most optimistic reformers had dared even to dream of barely more than a year earlier?
And did I mention that the differences between the two versions are even less significant this year? And that either version is exponentially better than what even the most optimistic reformers had dared even to dream of just two years ago?
Both the House bill and the Senate bill give the governor the tools to act like a governor and give the Legislature the tools and, more importantly, the mandate to act like a legislature. In so doing, they make it more difficult for either to shift blame to the other, and they should introduce some efficiency into the state’s central bureaucracy.
They do this by dismantling the hermaphroditic Budget and Control Board, which is the name of a massive state agency that handles the central administrative functions of our government and of its cantankerous governing board, made up of the governor, treasurer and comptroller general and the chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees.
Both versions of the bill give nearly all of the board’s executive duties — from human resources and information technology to overseeing building maintenance and parking garages — to the state’s chief executive, the governor. Both end the practice of allowing a quasi-legislative, quasi-executive board to override budget decisions, and give those legislative duties back to the Legislature. Both give the Legislature a new mandate — or a mandate that is new to our Legislature, although common to most legislatures: to examine how executive agencies carry out the laws that the Legislature has passed, and to correct problems as they find them.
Both leave in place a much smaller version of the Budget and Control Board, to handle a few matters that have some legislative and some executive components, such as approving borrowing plans and overseeing the Insurance Reserve Fund. The Senate version also allows this mini-Budget and Control Board to sign off on major procurement decisions. I don’t think that’s a good idea, but if that’s the only thing standing between our state and all of the reforms that are in the legislation — and it’s the only significant difference between the two versions — then we ought to just give in and accept it.
Did I mention that there is absolutely no good reason that a conference committee — once we get one appointed — needs to take more than a week to negotiate a compromise?
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.