Gov. Nikki Haley will lose the authority to appoint the head of the state Department of Transportation if a new state budget is not passed by July 1.
The Senate Finance Committee passed a resolution Wednesday for state government to continue operating at current funding levels in case a new budget is not passed by the beginning of the state’s fiscal year, a move that indicates a budget deal may not be reached soon.
But failure to pass a state budget before July 1 could cost Republican Haley her executive authority over the Transportation Department. Haley’s authority to appoint the head of that agency expires on July 1, and renewing that power is part of the budget.
“(I)t is irresponsible for the Legislature to not pass a budget by the new fiscal year,” Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said Wednesday. “(I)f they are doing so to play political games with our transportation system, that’s even worse.”
Changing the control of the commission that oversees the Transportation Department has been a key part of the ongoing debate over how South Carolina should pay to repair its crumbling roads and bridges.
Seven of the commission’s eight members now are nominated from congressional districts and elected by legislators. Haley names the eighth commissioner and the agency’s head. However, if the budget is not passed, the seven Transportation Department commissioners appointed by lawmakers – not Haley – could select a new head to lead the agency.
Some critics, including Haley, say the Transportation Department should not get more money until the governor has more control over the agency. A House-passed road-repair proposal, which died in the state Senate, would have allowed the governor to appoint the commission, which then would select the agency’s secretary.
Transportation Secretary Janet Oakley and commission members testified before a special House roads committee that the current system is not efficient or effective, said state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York. Critics say Transportation effectively has two chiefs — the eight-member commission, dominated by legislative appointees, and the secretary, named by the governor.
Some legislators still hold out hope a budget deal is possible before July 1.
“It’s a safety net,” Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said of approving the continuing resolution Wednesday. “It’s not a white flag.”
Reverting the Transportation Department back to General Assembly control is “going backwards, not staying even,” Simrill said. “You’re certainly not moving forward.”
The issue of a new Transportation secretary is pressing. Earlier this month, Oakley submitted her resignation after a year in the post. At the time, Oakley said she would stay until Haley named her replacement.
The House and Senate previously agreed to approve extending Haley’s appointment power at the Transportation Department for a year. But they did so in their budget proposals, not yet passed.
However, the Senate Finance Committee did not include the appointment extension in the continuing resolution that it passed Wednesday. “I can’t base the workings and the adoption of this budget on any one (proposal) in the budget,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.
The budget is in flux due to two related spending issues, how to use a $300 million-plus state surplus and a proposal to spend $85 million from a state savings account.
Legislators return to Columbia on Tuesday to deal with the budget impasse.
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said Wednesday that if lawmakers do not make progress on reaching a budget deal next week, he will move to protect the governor’s appointment power.
“The current system ... is the ultimate exercise in parochialism,” Haley said in January, calling for reform. “Instead of fighting for the needs of South Carolina at large, they (Transportation commissioners) fight for the needs of their districts, which means they fight each other.”
Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.
Gas-tax opponents say fight just beginning
Opponents of a plan to raise the state’s gas tax said Wednesday they have just started fighting.
When lawmakers return to work in January to finish out a two-year legislative session, proposals to raise the gas tax and provide some tax relief will be at the top of their agenda.
Before then, lawmakers and the public need to evaluate Transportation Department estimates that the state needs an added $1.5 billion a year to fix and expand its roads and bridges, said Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, a limited-government group.
Millions of dollars have been “diverted to politically motivated projects” by another state transportation agency, the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, said Dana Beach of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, which opposes the Infrastructure Bank-backed proposed expansion of I-526 in Charleston.
JoAnne Day with the League of Women Voters good-government group, Talbert Black with the libertarian Campaign for Liberty and Dave Schwartz with the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a national advocacy group backed by the billionaire political activist Koch brothers, also spoke out against raising the gas tax until the way the state pays for roads is reformed.
Schwartz said his group will be ready for “hand-to-hand combat” over the gas-tax issue when state legislators return to work in January. He declined to say how much his group will spend to fight a tax hike.