STATE SENATORS long have taken the position that any significant reform needs to stew a while, rather than being rushed through. And for nine years, they let efforts to give the governor control of routine administrative functions and reduce the authority of the hermaphroditic Budget and Control Board stew. We might even say they let reformers stew, as the Senate for most of that time had no intention of doing anything. Even when Sens. Vincent Sheheen, Shane Massey and Tom Davis finally convinced their colleagues to embrace reform last spring, they refused to let Gov. Nikki Haley or anybody else rush them into passing a bill.
And we are all the better for it.
The legislation the Senate passed unanimously on Thursday is far superior to the package it was on the verge of adopting when lawmakers adjourned in June. And that was far superior to the bill the House had passed, which was far superior to bills the House had passed in previous years. In fact, the bill that now goes back to the House for consideration is far superior to anything that has even been proposed before.
It doesn’t simply diminish the Budget and Control Board, with its unnatural blending of executive and legislative authority; it abolishes it. A board similarly constituted of two legislators, the governor, the treasurer and the comptroller general still would have to sign off on large bond issues, but nothing more. Separate boards appointed jointly by the governor and legislators would make revenue projections and oversee the state employee pension and insurance systems.
Beyond that, the multitudinous decisions that are now made by the board would be made entirely by the executive branch or entirely by the legislative branch. Although the Legislature gave governors control of several state agencies two decades ago, this change is in some ways more significant, because it rejects central tenets of the Legislative State and instead embraces the separation of powers doctrine that is central to the American system of government.
The bill allows the governor to act like a governor — with the tools to analyze spending and control of central administrative functions from property and fleet management to information technology. And it requires the Legislature to act like a legislature — transforming its primary job from writing laws and passing a budget to providing oversight of the way executive agencies administer the laws it has passed, and making changes based on this new knowledge. Thus it gives greater power to both the governor and the Legislature — and makes it more difficult for both to shift blame to others or shirk their responsibilities.
The bill is not perfect, and if the House can improve on provisions that dilute accountability, it should do so. What it should not do is move the pendulum back toward the status quo. Insisting on the version of the legislation that the House passed last year would be doing that. So would any change that leaves an executive-legislative hybrid in charge of any more duties than the Senate bill does.
For nearly a decade, Speaker Bobby Harrell has positioned the House at the forefront of efforts to reform our government. It’s now up to him and his colleagues to decide whether to push that effort past the finish line. They should embrace the opportunity to do so.