September 4, 2012

Why agencies have to spend what’s allocated

IMAGINE THAT the Legislature had appropriated enough money to the colleges to offset their planned tuition increases for this fall.

IMAGINE THAT the Legislature had appropriated enough money to the colleges to offset their planned tuition increases for this fall.

Imagine further that USC’s trustees refused to use the extra money and raised tuition anyway, explaining: “We believe in shared sacrifice, that as we go through tough times it is so important that every one of us has some skin in the game. And to us, that means the taxpayers should not have to pick up the tab for 100 percent of the increase in the cost of students’ education. Just because the Legislature appropriated this money doesn’t mean we have to spend it all.”

Does anyone doubt for a second that the Legislature would be calling for the trustees’ heads? Perhaps even coming back into emergency session to overrule their action, maybe even remove them from office? Or that Gov. Nikki Haley would be right there with the lawmakers, denouncing the trustees for further burdening the hard-working families of our state?

And yet, that is no different from what Gov. Haley, Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom and Treasurer Curtis Loftis did when they voted to increase state employees’ health-insurance premiums instead of using the money the Legislature appropriated to offset that cost increase.

It is no different from, say, the Department of Natural Resources increasing the cost of hunting and fishing licenses to pay for game wardens’ raises, rather than using the money the Legislature provided for that. No different from the Department of Employment and Workforce refusing to return tens of millions of dollars to businesses that the Legislature appropriated to offset their unemployment taxes.

The governor insists that what makes the Budget and Control Board’s action legitimate was the Legislature’s failure to write a proviso in the budget saying the board was actually required to use the money for the purpose for which it was designated. And although we believe the constitution and existing statutes actually do require that, even in the absence of such a proviso, it’s a safe bet that the Legislature will be much more careful about spelling out its intentions in future budgets. So in that regard, it’s unlikely that we’ll see such overreaches again.

But the governor’s argument about the proper role of the executive in regard to the budget passed by the Legislature raises a much larger issue that needs to be addressed.

Extending far beyond that part about shared sacrifice, the governor’s over-arching argument is that the fact that the Legislature appropriates money does not — and certainly should not — mean the executive branch has to spend it. In a guest column in our paper explaining her action, Ms. Haley wrote that she “can’t think of a better recipe for waste and abuse than telling state agencies if they don’t spend every dollar every year they are violating the law.”

And who can argue with that? We’ve all heard stories about agencies spending up their budgets before the fiscal year ends, on sometimes frivolous things, because they’ll lose it if they don’t. We know state employees who admit having done this, and that’s simply wrong.

But here’s the problem with the governor’s argument: There’s a huge difference between spending frugally so that at year’s end you find that you didn’t need all the money you were allocated, and refusing to spend money on those things the Legislature appropriated money for you to spend on.

The first is being a responsible custodian of tax dollars. The second, when practiced by a state agency, is insubordination. When advocated by a governor, it is an attempt to render the state budget meaningless.

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