Editorial: A victory for South Carolina: Dismantling Budget and Control Board gives governor, Legislature tools to govern

January 22, 2014 

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TRACY GLANTZ — tglantz@thestate.com Buy Photo

— THREE YEARS after Gov. Nikki Haley started working to turn control of the central administrative functions of our government over to the governor …

Seven years after her once-and-future challenger Sen. Vincent Sheheen came up with the breakthrough idea of marrying gubernatorial empowerment with legislative empowerment …

Twenty-three years after The State published its yearlong Power Failure series that documented the failures of the Legislative State and this editorial board joined with then-Gov. Carroll Campbell and the leading independent public-policy experts in our state in calling for dismantling that Legislative State …

The General Assembly has agreed to disassemble the hermaphroditic Budget and Control Board, a five-member panel that oversees the same-named state agency, stifling accountability (when five people are in charge, no one is in charge), giving legislators inappropriate executive authority and robbing legislators of important legislative authority.

Thus will we allow governors to control what are considered mundane gubernatorial duties in the other 49 states, and require the Legislature to start acting like a legislature.

It is indeed a great day in South Carolina.

No longer will two legislators have equal power with the governor, treasurer and comptroller general in overseeing everything from intra-agency mail and janitorial services to a museum to the Confederacy and 900 employees, many of whom work at the agency because legislators created special positions for them.

The legislation that the House and Senate finally approved on Tuesday does not go as far as it should in turning administrative duties over to the governor; most notably, it retains a shadow of the five-member board — think of it as a mini-me board — to control large purchases and borrowing.

And even if the Legislature had agreed to turn all of the board’s executive duties over to the governor, the bill still would leave huge swaths of government out of the control of our governor — most notably the state Education Department, our top environmental agency, our police agencies and the public colleges and universities. In fact, it doesn’t give governors nearly as much new power as the first governmental restructuring bill, passed in 2003.

Yet in some important ways, it is far more significant than that earlier legislation, which put governors in charge of about a third of the government, as measured by spending, because it breaks through a political barrier that even Mr. Campbell had decided against challenging by the time the Legislature got down to work on the 2003 reforms.

Although we talk about government restructuring in terms of taking power from the Legislature, previous reforms never did that. They took power away from a byzantine collection of part-time, autonomous boards and commissions, and gave it to the governor. The Legislature was weakened only by comparison — and still it remained firmly in charge of our government.

It still will under this new arrangement, but giving the governor many of the duties of the Budget and Control Board will indeed take power from the Legislature. And it will take a lot of power from the chairmen of the Legislature’s budget-writing committees, Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman and House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, who themselves wield great power over their colleagues, in part because of their seats on the board.

In return, though, the law will give more power to the Legislature. The quasi-executive, quasi-legislative board no longer will be able to rewrite the state budget by allowing agencies to run deficits; now, only the Legislature will be able to do that. The Legislature also will be empowered to return to Columbia to address mid-year revenue shortfalls — which the Budget and Control Board now does through destructive across-the-board cuts — although the Department of Administration will act as a backup if the Legislature refuses to act.

And in what could turn out to be the most significant change, the law gives the Legislature a new mission and focus: to examine how executive agencies carry out the laws that the Legislature has passed, so it can correct the problems it finds, before they become crises.

Whether the Legislature will fulfill its new mandate is yet to be seen, as is how well the governor will execute her new duties. But it’s nearly impossible to fulfill a mandate you don’t have, and you can’t execute duties you don’t have. These changes give our Legislature and our governor the tools they never have had to write better laws and to better administer those laws. It will be up to us to insist that they follow through.

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