House and Senate lawmakers appear far from a compromise on a government restructuring bill that will be a key issue in the 2014 governor’s race.
A conference committee of three S.C. House members and three state senators met Thursday for the first time in six months – two weeks after Republican Gov. Nikki Haley publicly criticized them for failing to act. After meeting for about two hours, the lawmakers adjourned, promising to meet again in January.
The issue before the committee is whether and how to restructure state government.
Most of South Carolina’s state government is run not by the Legislature or the governor but by the five-member Budget and Control Board, made up of the governor, state treasurer, state comptroller general and chairman of the House and Senate budget committees.
The restructuring proposal, S.22, would eliminate the Budget and Control Board and move most of the state’s administrative functions – including human resources, information technology and building maintenance – to a Department of Administration that would be part of the governor’s office.
Republican Haley promised to pass restructuring when she ran for governor in 2010. And the proposal’s primary sponsor is state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, the likely Democratic nominee to oppose Haley for governor next year.
Both sides take credit for the bill while blaming the other for its continuing failure to pass. The House has passed a government restructuring bill five times, but, each time, it has languished in the Senate, failing to reach the governor’s desk.
“It’s a positive sign that progress was made today and having fought for a strong DOA (Department of Administration) bill for over three years, Governor Haley is watching this process very closely,” Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said. “The governor appreciates the work of the conference committee and greatly looks forward to seeing a completed report at the start of the upcoming legislative session.”
Legislators took shots Thursday at the other body’s version of the restructuring bill.
House lawmakers said the Senate version would make “it easier for (state) agencies to run deficits.” Senators said the House’s version would weaken the state’s procurement system, making it more susceptible to fraud.
In the House version of the bill, only the Legislature could give a state agency permission to run a deficit. The Senate bill would allow the executive budget office to approve deficits of $1 million or less.
State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, said the House proposal would prod state agency directors to “find a way to be in balance,” rather than anger the state Legislature.
But state Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said if a deficit occurred while lawmakers were not in session, it would cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars to call an emergency legislative session.
“If you get a deficit of $25,000, is it worth spending several hundred thousand dollars to bring the General Assembly back to address it?” he asked.
The House bill would put the state procurement office, which handles all of the state’s purchases, under the governor’s control.
The Senate bill would create a new state agency to handle procurement, the S.C. Contracts and Accountability Authority. The authority would have seven members – the governor, state attorney general, treasurer, comptroller general, lieutenant governor, and one member each from the House and Senate.
That sounded too much like the Budget and Control Board to some House members.
“If we end up with a successor entity that can bond, that can procure and that can budget, what is it that this bill has really changed?” asked Rep. Jay Lucas, R-Darlington. “Because those three functions make this successor entity a behemoth and one of the strongest entities in state government.”
But state Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, said states where the governor’s office handles procurement have had “folks end up in jail.”
“I don’t think we want to have to learn that second kick of the mule,” he said.
Despite their disagreements, lawmakers said after the meeting that they are close to reaching a compromise.
Sheheen called that “historic.”
“The governor and other members of the Budget and Control Board have approved hundreds of millions of dollars in deficit spending over the past few years, and we’re going to stop that. That’s what this bill does. That’s a big deal,” Sheheen said. “I hope we will set a goal of passing a bill through our respective bodies in January.”
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.