Scoppe: Budget and Control Board abolished, now comes the hard part — for legislators

Associate EditorFebruary 8, 2014 

— WHEN a judge ruled in an eight-year old lawsuit that the Corrections Department had repeatedly violated the rights of mentally ill prisoners, even causing their deaths, Rep. Bruce Bannister said the problem “came out of left field.”

“I didn’t even know it was an issue that anybody was addressing,” he told The Greenville News last month.

The reaction was similar when DHEC Director Catherine Templeton announced that same week that a fund established to pay for monitoring leaks from a hazardous-waste landfill on the shores of Lake Marion was running dry — 90 years ahead of schedule. Rep. Murrell Smith told The State he was “distressed that this has been depleted to the degree it has been without any mention to the Legislature.”

These men are not legislative back-benchers. Mr. Bannister is the House Republican leader, and before that he chaired the Constitutional Laws subcommittee, which vets the most legally challenging bills that go through the State House. Mr. Smith chairs the budget subcommittee that writes the DHEC budget, making him one of two legislators most responsible for understanding what’s going on at that agency.

They are, in short, among our top legislative leaders.

They are clueless about major problems in major state agencies.

And they are far from alone.

It’s unrealistic to expect every member of our part-time Legislature to have even a cursory knowledge of the problems at more than 100 state agencies. The best we could hope for is to have a handful of experts on each agency. But we don’t have even that.

The only routine review that agencies receive is during the annual budget hearings, and “cursory” would be a kind word to describe those hearings. Agency directors appear before panels of three or four legislators, often for less than a half hour, with little time to do anything more than present their budget requests and answer questions about problems that have been in the news.

That’s all about to change, thanks to what is potentially the most important, and certainly the most dramatic, and difficult, part of the bill the Legislature passed last month dismantling the Budget and Control Board.

The new law requires House and Senate committees to review every state agency at least once every seven years, gives lawmakers new tools — chiefly subpoena power — to conduct those reviews, and any additional ones they deem fit, and expands the review responsibility: Instead of just the budget committees, all committees will be involved, which reduces the workload on each committee and should expand the scope of review beyond just dollars and cents.

The idea is to increase the chance that someone will see problems before they become crises, and that legislators will have the knowledge to tell whether the laws they pass are working as they intended, and to change them if they are not. They might find out, for instance, that the state’s tax agency hasn’t had anyone in charge of computer security for a year, and address that problem before hackers make off with Social Security numbers and other sensitive financial data of 6.5 million current and former residents and businesses.

That’s how it’s supposed to work.

There’s never any guarantee that people will do what the law requires of them, particularly when those people are state legislators, who can simply insert a proviso into the budget to “suspend” the requirements for a year. And then another. And another.

Although many legislators found the idea of empowering the governor less objectionable when it was paired with more oversight tools for themselves, many failed to understand that exercising that power would require a great deal of work. As one of the primary authors of the legislation, Sen. Shane Massey, told me the day the bill was sent to the governor, “I don’t think my colleagues understand what they’ve agreed to.”

Even if legislators don’t suspend the review requirements, many will be tempted to let their staff do the work, perhaps glance at the resulting reports and then move as quickly as possible back to their important debates over finding a new state creature to designate or a new overpass to name for themselves or trying to “nullify” Obamacare or arm every citizen in our state.

Of course, even staff reviews will be an improvement — since staff likely will flag any red flags — but it’s not enough. And it will be up to legislators such as Mr. Massey and the S.C. Chamber of Commerce and others of us who have pushed for this legislation, and whoever is governor when that part of the law takes effect in January — Gov. Nikki Haley or Sen. Vincent Sheheen — to insist that legislators take their new job seriously.

It’s easy to dismiss legislative oversight as a gimmick — a great idea that Mr. Sheheen came up with to sell empowering governors to weary legislators. And it was indeed essential politically. But it’s so much more than that.

Having a legislative branch that understands what state agencies are doing and acts on that knowledge is as essential to making our government work as having a governor who has the authority to run those agencies.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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