Friday could be one of the most important days of the 2015 legislative session – even if lawmakers are not in Columbia.
That’s because the state Board of Economic Advisors is set to certify roughly $400 million in added money for the state’s general fund budget, now $7 billion.
That surplus – first rumored, then announced and to become official Friday – has brought the legislative session to a standstill. Libertarian-leaning senators have used the prospect of added money to block action on part of the state budget that takes effect July 1 and an increasingly unlikely proposal to repair the state’s crumbling roads and bridges.
A Senate critic of that roads proposal, which includes increasing the state’s gas tax, said Thursday that certification of the surplus was delayed for weeks, keeping the public in the dark as the gas-tax debate has flared and sputtered.
Public knowledge of the surplus would have killed momentum to raise gas taxes, said state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, stopping just short of calling the delay a conspiracy. Davis said the Economic Advisors knew of the surplus on May 8.
The board – a three-member panel made up of the appointees of Gov. Nikki Haley, Senate Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and House Ways and Means Committee chairman Brian White, R-Anderson – originally were scheduled to meet May 21.
However, that meeting was rescheduled to Friday, said board chairman Chad Walldorf, appointed by Republican Haley. Walldorf said he did not know who requested the delay.
Staff said through email the board needed to push back the meeting, Walldorf said. “Due to FOIA laws ... I don’t communicate with any of the other members outside meetings as that would be two-thirds of the membership.”
Other players in the mini-drama also disclaimed any involvement in the delay.
Senate President Pro Tem Leatherman said he did not request it. “I have never, ever involved myself with the BEA workings.”
Rep. White also said he did not request the delay.
“I just know it didn’t happen,” Davis said, adding, “Twenty days have gone by, and we can’t move forward because of that.”
While yet to be certified, the surplus has been spent several times in politicians’ comments.
Haley wants the money to go for roads, to cut taxes or to pay off state debt.
Davis, who continued filibustering the Senate Thursday, wants the surplus money to go to counties for road repairs.
State Rep. Gary Simrill, chairman of a subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee, said some surplus money will be dedicated for education, reserves and other obligations. That House committee will begin debate of how to spend the surplus money Monday.
In other action Thursday:
▪ The House and Senate rejected each others’ budget proposals, setting the stage for a joint House-Senate conference committee to negotiate a budget deal.
▪ House members approved, 57-45, a Senate proposal to extend for one year the soon-to-expire structure of the state Transportation Department Commission.
Calls for reforming the Transportation Department – Haley wants control of the agency, for instance – have been a part of the roads debate.
Opponents, including state Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, said extending the department’s current structure removes pressure on the Senate to act on roads this year.
However, others, including Simrill, said extending the current structure – where the governor names the agency’s director – is better than the previous system, where legislators totally controlled the agency.
Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.