THE HOUSE plan to dismantle the Budget and Control Board, up for debate this week, is bulky and balky and far from perfect.
Although it gives most of the quasi-administrative, quasi-legislative agency’s duties to the governor, it carves out some particularly sensitive duties — bonding authority and overseeing the Insurance Reserve Fund among them — to a Contracts and Accountability Authority. This new board (and the new agency that would be created to carry out its mandates) would be made up of two legislators and five constitutional officers.
The bill pulls out the Board of Economic Advisors as a stand-alone agency, and gives that board — whose members are supposed to be chosen because of their economic insight rather than their management abilities — control over important budget and research offices.
Several offices that currently reside uncomfortably inside the governor’s office would be moved to the governor’s new Department of Administration, rather than being sent back to the agencies that provide similar services.
And yet for all of those flaws, the legislation still marks a dramatic improvement over the status quo, which gives two legislators equal power with the governor, treasurer and comptroller general in overseeing everything from procurement decisions and revenue estimates to a museum to the Confederacy and a program to treat children with severe emotional problems. The agency that shares its name with the governing board has 900 employees, many of whom work there because legislators created special positions for them.
This uniquely South Carolina anachronism doesn’t just stifle accountability (when five people are in charge, no one is in charge) and give legislators inappropriate executive authority. It also robs legislators of their legislative authority, because it has the power to override the state budget and let agencies run a deficit or borrow money from another agency.
The bill up for debate in the House this week solves nearly all of those problems. It transfers most of the agency’s duties to the governor, which by itself would be reason enough to welcome it. It also sharply curtails those administrative functions that legislators can meddle in, and reduces their ability to meddle. And it gives the Legislature a new mandate: to provide oversight of the way executive agencies administer the laws that it writes, and make changes based on this new knowledge.
It is, in short, a huge step forward. As is the bill the Senate passed earlier this year, which contains most of the same benefits and most of the same shortcomings as the House bill. The primary difference between the two versions is that the House puts the governor’s Department of Administration in charge of procurement, and the Senate leaves that to a new hybrid board that is similar to the House’s Contracts and Accountability Authority.
We’d prefer to have the Department of Administration handle all central administrative duties, including procurement, but the unfortunate fact is that some powerful senators are opposed to that, and the Senate rules will make it extremely difficult to pass this legislation without their acquiescence. You might recall that last year, both bodies passed bills that are nearly identical to this year’s versions, a conference committee reached a compromise, the House passed it, and it died because Senate opponents managed to run the clock and block a final vote.
It’s unrealistic to expect the House to just give in right now to the demands of a minority of senators, but here’s what’s not unreasonable: Representatives should make whatever changes they can to facilitate a reasonable compromise with the Senate, so lawmakers can actually get a bill to the governor’s desk this year. Because the best bill in the world isn’t worth the paper it’s written on if it dies on the Senate floor. Again.