Politics & Government

Powerful SC House budget chairman loses his post to Sumter Republican

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, speaks to another member of the House of Representatives during a session at the South Carolina State House Tuesday Dec. 4, 2018, in Columbia, SC.
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, speaks to another member of the House of Representatives during a session at the South Carolina State House Tuesday Dec. 4, 2018, in Columbia, SC. gmcintyre@thestate.com

The chairman of the S.C. House’s budget-writing committee — one of the most powerful legislators in the General Assembly — has lost his job, a month before lawmakers return to Columbia for the 2019 session.

In a major State House shakeup that surprised most lawmakers, S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, removed state Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, from his post on the Ways and Means Committee and reassigned him to the House’s Labor and Industry Committee — a demotion to a far less influential panel.

Ways and Means Committee members unanimously elected state Rep. Murrell Smith as chairman Wednesday. The Sumter Republican chaired the committee’s health-care panel this past legislative session. He previously was on the House Judiciary Committee for eight years before joining Ways and Means in 2009.

“Obviously, it’s an honor,” said Smith, an attorney who represents a moderate GOP district in the S.C. House. “The committee process and the institution is more important than all of us.”

Smith also will chair the House’s Ethics Committee at least until January, when that panel elects its next leader. State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, stepped down as Ethics chairman after suffering a heart attack in October.. Separately, state Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, was elected chair of the House’s powerful Judiciary Committee.

The Ways and Means Committee is powerful. The 25-member panel writes the first draft of the state’s more than $8 billion general fund budget, and the committee’s chairman can influence heavily priorities for state spending.

That means picking winners and losers out of a multitude of spending requests that come in each year from state agencies, including South Carolina’s colleges and universities and K-12 schools.

Since 2011, White had been at the center of that process. However, critics said White too often did not listen to other House members or leaders, making decisions unilaterally.

White’s ouster further reduces the Upstate’s power in the Legislature, which has been on the wane since the retirement of House Speaker David Wilkins, R-Greenville. For a decade that power shifted to the Lowcountry, which elected a governor, speaker and Senate leader. Since then, however, that influence has shifted to the Interstate 20 corridor, which now boasts a governor, speaker, Senate leader and — with Smith — a House budget leader.

Smith’s position is particularly important now because the state will have $1 billion in added money to spend in the coming year. Smith could direct those dollars toward addressing the state’s K-12 education woes and tax reform, two priorities supported by Lucas.

“Chairman White is a friend, and he was a good committee chairman,” Smith said. “I look forward in building upon what he’s created for us.”

White learned of his replacement late Tuesday, a move stemming from unease within the House GOP Caucus, the Anderson Republican said in a statement.

“The speaker told me that the Republican Caucus was not happy with my leadership of the committee, and that he wanted to make a change to (a) chairman who would carry out the caucus agenda,” White said. “Throughout my service, I have always tried to do what’s right for the state and the people of South Carolina without regard for political considerations.”

White declined further comment.

In a statement, Lucas referred to White as a “good man” and a “friend,” saying, as speaker, his responsibility is to do what is best for the House and South Carolinians.

“I believe that positive change is necessary to diligently address upcoming budget items and am confident Murrell Smith will give a renewed direction to the committee,” he said.

During his tenure as budget chairman, White sometimes sparred with other legislators and the S.C. governor’s office over how to spend state money.

In October, White did not attend a meeting at the Governor’s Mansion after GOP Gov. Henry McMaster asked to meet with House Republicans and the party’s leadership over his requests to sustain his budget vetoes. During last spring’s budget debate, White also clashed with lawmakers over spending on higher education and a lab for the State Law Enforcement Division.

“I often say because you have something now doesn’t mean you always will,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, who was elected vice chair of Ways and Means Wednesday. “It pays to be nice. People should remember that the same people you meet on your way up are the same people you’ll meet on your way down.”

Rep. Pitts offered the same advice to new chair Smith during Ways and Means’ Wednesday meeting, saying power can be fleeting and “subversive forces are still out there.”

“It was crappy” the way White was removed, Pitts said.

Budget committee members — including subcommittee chairs — were caught unaware by the change, Pitts said. “You don’t handle it the way it was handled.”

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Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.