A USC chemistry professor has sued some of the state’s most powerful politicians, asking the courts to put to rest a lingering question in state government: Who is in charge?
Thomas A. Bryson, director of graduate studies for USC’s chemistry and biochemistry department, filed a class-action lawsuit in Richland County on behalf of all state employees, challenging the State Budget and Control Board’s 3-2 decision last week to make state workers pay more for their health insurance, starting next year.
The budget board’s move, proposed by Gov. Nikki Haley and praised by some taxpayer groups, would save the state $5.8 million but cost the average state worker or retiree an extra $7.24 a month.
The budget board’s vote appeared to overrule the state Legislature. Last month, as part of a budget compromise, legislators voted specifically not to raise the insurance costs of state workers, who had gone without across-the-board pay raise for years.
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But if lawmakers vote for something and the Budget and Control Board votes against it, who wins?
“This lawsuit is not about the amount ... or paying one’s ‘fair share.’ It’s about checks and balances, government officials ignoring the law and separation of powers,” Bryson said in an email to The State newspaper. “If the Budget and Control Board can ... deny the will of the state Legislature, what’s next?”
The five-member budget board manages many of state government’s administrative functions. It is made up of the governor, treasurer, comptroller general, and chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees.
On occasion, lawmakers have handed politically tough decisions, which legislators did not want to make, to the budget board. For example, the General Assembly last year did not fully fund the increased cost of state workers’ health insurance, forcing the budget board to raise state workers’ insurance rates by 4.5 percent.
“But this has never happened before, where the General Assembly funded it with the intention of leaving the rates as they are and the Budget and Control Board decided, ‘Well, we are going to raise the rates anyway,’ ” said state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “From the policy standpoint, it was our intention that they not do it.”
USC’s Bryson argues the budget board does not have the authority to overrule the Legislature.
But the case is not black and white.
Lawmakers set aside enough money to cover all the increased cost of state workers’ health insurance. But they did not pass an accompanying law – called a budget proviso – that requires the state to spend the money.
“Nowhere in the budget, or any other place, did the Legislature set rates, which means their argument must boil down to the idea that, because the Legislature appropriated the money, we were then required to spend it,” Rob Godfrey, Haley’s spokesman, said in a statement. “That mentality is exactly what is wrong with government.”
Michael Medlock, Bryson’s attorney, counters lawmakers do not have to pass a proviso requiring the spending of every dollar in the budget. “There is not a proviso that sets (the governor’s) salary, but she knows what she is getting.”
State lawmakers have criticized Haley’s move, comparing it to a back-door budget veto.
Earlier this year, Haley’s proposed state workers and government evenly split any increase in the cost of health insurance. Later, when lawmakers instead decided to have state government pay for all that increase, Haley could have vetoed that money.
“The governor had every opportunity to veto that line item and chose not to do it,” said Roger Smith, executive director of the S.C. Education Association, which represents teachers.
Haley’s office argues if the first-term Republican governor from Lexington had vetoed the health insurance money and lawmakers had sustained that veto, state workers would have been forced to pay 100 percent of their higher insurance costs.
“The governor believes that the cost should be shared,” Godfrey said. “That cost share was impossible in the veto process – her only options were to place the full cost on one side or the other, which ... was not her intention.”
At least three other organizations also may file lawsuits over the issue.
The S.C. Association of State Employees and the S.C. Education Association are preparing a lawsuit. That suit, challenging the budget board’s decision as violating the state Constitution, would go directly to the State Supreme Court.
Sam Griswold, spokesman for the State Retirees Association of South Carolina, said he is considering filing a personal lawsuit.
Carlton Washington, executive director of the employees’ association, said it is possible the lawsuits could be combined.
Below is a copy of the lawsuit