The year that wasn't
2009 slim pickings for legislative accomplishments
By Bill Davis, senior editor
MAY 22, 2009 -- In the Chinese zodiac, 2009 was the Year of the Rat. In the S.C. General Assembly, 2009 was the Year of Missed Opportunities.
This session, the state legislature fought bitterly with Gov. Mark Sanford, fought with itself, passed arguably no significant bill outside of its annual budget, and then left town two weeks early.
With state coffers dropping for the second year in a row, it could be said that the legislature focused more on its own fiscal problems than crises mounting around the state in the areas of education, employment, the environment and health care.
A short list of big issues and proposed bills that died, largely unresolved, this year included:
- Cigarette tax, an increase in which could have added $135 million in revenues that to use to leverage an additional $400 million in federal matching health care dollars for expanding health care offerings across the state for the working poor and the poor.
- Early voting, which would have shortened lines like the ones seen in the presidential election.
- Employment Security Commission, rife with allegations of mismanagement, was not shifted into the governor’s cabinet for more immediate scrutiny.
- Other bills included ones that would have created a moratorium on “mega-dump” landfills; permitting regulations for drawing down surface water resources; comprehensive tax reform; and further restructuring state government, including the creation of a Department of Administration.
The list goes on.
Many disappointed with session
“I’m disappointed we didn’t do a thing this session to put the state of South Carolina in a better position to increase jobs and personal income,” said House Minority Leader Harry Ott (D-St, Matthews). “We didn’t do anything big this year, except miss some opportunities to pass an increased cigarette tax or regulate payday lending.”
Instead, Ott charged, the legislature found itself “hung up” on irrelevant issues “like passing resolutions to send to Congress that we know they’re not going to pay any attention to.”
House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston) said he was most disappointed about the debate the legislature found itself in with the governor over the stimulus money. The Obama administration put a $789 billion stimulus package together for states, which included cash and tax credits, with South Carolina set to receive close to $8 billion over the next two years.
Despite criticizing the stimulus as bad for America, Sanford accepted most of this year’s chunk, but has fought long and publicly against approving the final $700 million chunk meant largely for education and law enforcement.
Sanford’s actions, on top of the myriad of federal strings attached to the money, delayed the budgeting process by two weeks in an already-shortened session. In hopes of staying within its own shrinking operational budget, the House and Senate furloughed members and staffers for differing amounts of time this session, and moved up its end date to May 21.
Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence) said Wednesday the contentious fight was necessary to get all the stimulus funds, otherwise “we would have done irreparable harm to K-12, higher education and the highway patrol.”
Leatherman’s comments came the day before Sanford filed suit against the state in federal court in another attempt to delay or block the final stimulus money.
Budget may be enough of accomplishment this year
Rep. Dan Cooper (R-Piedmont), chair of Ways and Means in the House, defended the budget fight, as he claimed it was the first time in at least 30 years a budget was passed without a conference committee.
House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham (R-Cayce) said the budget was enough of an accomplishment a few weeks ago, when it became obvious so little of the legislature’s agenda was going to get through.
Harrell said he knew that Bingham’s position invited criticism, because the legislature is required by the state’s constitution to craft an annual budget every year. “But the court never said what it was going to look like,” Harrell said.
Not everyone in Columbia was as satisfied as Harrell or Bingham.
Heather Spires, a lobbyist for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, was grateful for the amount the state was finally able to put into its Conservation Bank, but it was a far cry from what had been initially expected.
Otis Rawl, president and CEO of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, was glad the legislature didn’t resort to raising taxes on the business community as a way to shore up sagging tax revenues.
But he said he was also worried about the legislature not addressing restructuring of the unemployment office, as he believed continually borrowing money to cover unemployment checks would result in a half-billion dollar debt over the coming years that is passed on to the business community.
Rawl and state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex were in agreement on two things. One, 2009 was a disappointing session. Two, the biggest disappointment was that the economy was so bad that an opportunity to really delve into comprehensive tax reform was missed.
Rawl saw it as a two-year issue, because of its complexity, whereas Rex approached it as the single issue -- how the state funds public education and other critical-need programs and agencies -- that touches all others.
Responding to Harrell’s claim that the legislature protected education spending as long as it could, Rex praised the General; Assembly for giving school systems across the state two years of flexibility in how it handles their budgets in the face of $400 million in cuts this year alone.
Crystal ball: Last year’s legislative session biggest accomplishment (cough) was passing illegal immigration reform, a federal issue. This year’s biggest was passing a legally-required annual state budget. What will next year bring, in a year when all the seats in the House are up for reelection? How about a shorter session so legislators who aren’t doing anything will have more time to run their campaigns?
Waiting for June
With the General Assembly adjourning Thursday under a sine die resolution until June 16, meetings are understandably sparse. But members from the Senate and the House will meet for the Sentencing Reform Commission on Thursday, May 28, at 9:30 a.m. in 105 Gressette.
Sanford vs. Legislature
In the last week of the legislative session, Gov. Mark Sanford sued the state, naming S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster as the defendant, in federal court in an attempt to wrest control of who can accept the remaining $700 million of the stimulus funds.
Sanford, who has campaigned for seven years to restructure state government into a more executive branch-friendly model, has said that the legislature has overstepped the limits of its power by forcing him to take the money when the 2009-10 budget becomes law.
Others, namely House and Senate brass, have criticized the governor for grandstanding. Why file in federal court? Was it a stall tactic to get more national attention should the case be kicked back to state court? Was it an attempt to get to the historically more conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond? Who does Mark Sanford think he is, Ned Sloan? Time will tell.
Vetoes in the spotlight
The General Assembly adjourned Thursday under a sine die resolution that will allow members to return to work the week of June 16 to deal with whatever unfinished business from the end of the session they need to.
That will include several certain gubernatorial vetoes of bills they just sent to Gov. Mark Sanford. The governor vetoed 49 items and sections of the budget this year, which represented the bulk of the budget. Several were sustained, like the veto to block creating a Capitol police force
and moving the state aeronautics board. Others, like accepting $350 million this year in federal stimulus money, were solidly overturned by both chambers.
Last week, despite days of messages and two physical trips to the governor’s office, no immediate comment was forthcoming on a blurb we eventually reported here last week about the fight between the legislature and the governor’s office over the fate of the state’s aeronautics board.
Legislators were concerned the Commerce department was cutting the board more harshly than other sections of the agency. So lawmakers voted to move it out of Commerce and into the Budget and Control Board. It was a catty move to be sure, since Commerce is in Gov. Mark Sanford’s cabinet and he has crusaded against the Budget and Control Board.
Requests for comments from Commerce spokesperson Kara Borie were made on Wednesday afternoon and Friday morning prior to our routine Friday afternoon publication. Two trips to Sanford’s Statehouse office were made on Wednesday, with requests to gubernatorial spokesperson Joel Sawyer.
In person, Sanford has always been gracious, informative, and usually very funny. No response came from either spokesperson until last Friday when our blurb hit the Internet. Normally, we’d include Sawyer’s and Borie’s comments here, but there has been a consistent pattern of refusing comment from the Sanford office, with a vast majority of calls for comment going completely unanswered this year. (The governor’s office won’t even put us on the official press release list.)
Earth to flacks: the way this works is you make comments BEFORE a story comes out, not gripe about it after publication. Next week, we’ll run a list of all the questions and topics on which we got stonewalled this year.
Joke of the week
The mean joke making the Democratic-friendly rounds in the Statehouse last week: “The day last week when Rep. Dennis Moss of Gaffney switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP, the I.Q. of both caucuses surged measurably.”
Legislature proves it doesn't need to meet so much
By Andy Brack, editor and publisher
MAY 22, 2009 – By its very actions, the General Assembly proved this year that it didn’t need to be in session for five months a year.
This year in regular session, the House met for just 42 legislative days -- seven weeks less than usual due to five weeks of money-saving furloughs and stopping two weeks earlier than planned. The Senate also had some furloughs and stopped two weeks early, but it met for 50 days this year.
“So they make fewer laws? How’s that a bad thing?” one Statehouse wag observed.
Well, it could be bad if they met less and came up with the same less-than-sterling record of accomplishment each year. But if they were smart, they could meet less and get MORE accomplished by better using out-of-session time to plan and by more effectively using committee time to discuss legislation.
“The business community would say we need to look at a shorter session,” said S.C. Chamber of Commerce President Otis Rawl, adding that a lot of wasted time would be captured if the House and Senate could work on budget bills at the same time, instead of the current process which requires the House to finish before the Senate gets down to real work.
“If they’re looking for efficiencies in government, that’s the way they could do that – cutting down the number of days they’re here.”
Across the country, there’s great diversity in how long citizen-legislators meet to do a state’s business. This year, for example, Florida met for just two months, while Georgia and Maryland met for three months. Some Southern states have a long session – four or five months – in odd-numbered years, followed by a short 40-day session generally limited to fiscal matters. Other states, such as New York and California where legislators are full-time, meet for months at a time.
Typically in South Carolina, the legislature meets for about five months. During his years in the General Assembly, former House Speaker David Wilkins pushed for a shorter session that would be at least a month shorter.
Rep. Seth Whipper, D-S.C., says a shorter session is possible.
“We can do it. Four months is plenty.”
House Ways and Means Chair Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, agreed. “I’ve been for it for awhile. I think the House has voted that way for a long time.”
Shortening the session would create fiscal savings and encourage legislators to be more effective in working before a session to get bills ready for the floor. It could free up governors to have more time to accomplish items on their agenda. And it could create systemic efficiencies to ensure more thoughtful consideration of issues.
Keep in mind, though, that shortening a session – while it would create less opportunity to fiddle with good state laws – has the possibility of narrowing the scope of all of the stuff that lawmakers do. And in a state where there are huge problems in education, environment, jobs, poverty and health care, less debate might not be the best thing.
Another thought: In meeting and accomplishing much less this year, the General Assembly might have indirectly proved something that folks at the water cooler have been saying for years – state lawmakers really don’t matter that much anyway in the larger scheme of things.
The unfortunate flaw in this logic is that the THINGS legislators do or don’t do actually do matter a lot. Because they’re not attending to education, jobs and health care, we continue to be mired at the bottom.
RECENTLY IN COMMENTARY
ACLU of South Carolina
The public spiritedness of our underwriters allows us to bring SC Statehouse Report to you at no cost. This week's spotlighted underwriter is the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU of South Carolina’s National Office in Charleston is dedicated to preserving the civil liberties enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. Through communications, lobbying and litigation, the ACLU South Carolina’s National Office works to preserve and enhance the rights of all citizens of South Carolina. Foremost among these rights are freedom of speech and religion, the right to equal treatment under law, and the right to privacy. More: http://www.aclusouthcarolina.org/
Can I get a witness?
By Ashley Woodiwiss
Special to SC Statehouse Report
MAY 22, 2009 -- Although the “I Believe” license plate has gone the way of the school-house Ten Commandments, there is still plenty of room for South Carolinians to proclaim what they stand for. Here is a partial list of issues for which we can bear witness along with an appropriate symbol suitable for a (judicially acceptable) I Believe SC license plate:
1. In a state with the lowest cigarette tax in the nation, I BELIEVE, it’s past time to pass the cigarette tax for the sake of public health.
Symbol: A lit cigarette with $ sign across it.
2. In a state that continues to rank near the bottom in public education, I BELIEVE, it’s past time to hold our elected officials accountable on this one issue.
Symbol: An apple with VOTE across it
3. In a state with a pre-term birthrate of 15.6 percent (#47th in the U.S.), I BELIEVE, it’s past time that health care be extended to women of child-bearing age in the state, 21 percent of whom have none.
Symbol: An obviously pregnant woman, smiling.
4. In a state with one of the nation’s highest unemployment rate, I BELIEVE, it’s past time that business and Columbia design and implement re-training programs.
Symbol: A smiling hard hat in front of a keyboard.
5. In a state with the worst rate of violent crime in the country, I BELIEVE, it’s past time that funds for re-entry programs for prisoners be enhanced.
Symbol: A smiling prisoner with a cap and gown leaves prison.
6. In a state that ranks among the worst in domestic violence, I BELIEVE, that it’s past time that churches and communities preach and teach a yet better way.
Symbol: Wedding rings united and superimposed upon a peace symbol.
7. In a state with such natural beauty and resources, I BELIEVE, it’s past time that the citizens and elected officials work to keep South Carolina green and clean.
Symbol: A flourishing palmetto encircled by a rainbow of smiling South Carolinians.
8. To make the above (and more!) a reality, I BELIEVE, that vibrant two-party competition best serves the people of South Carolina.
Symbol: A dancing Fred and Ginger Donkey and Elephant
Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief.
Ashley Woodiwiss is the Grady Patterson Chair of Politics and Director of the Drummond Center for Statesmanship at Erskine College in Due West, SC.
5/18: Lawmakers don't seem to care
To SC Statehouse Report:
I have emailed and sent letters to various legislators over the past two years about my concerns of bureaucratic inefficiency, stupid government programs and unnecessary government spending.
I have yet to receive any response. This tells me that our legislators don't really care about how well the government is run. They only care about getting reelected and going to all the parties the special interest groups throw them in Columbia.
We will NEVER have any change in the way state government operates as long as the same clowns are elected. We need to have term limits and a set amount of money politicians can have to run their campaigns. This money does not need to come from special interests but a fund established by the election commission.
Societies have been destroyed by corrupt government.
-- Bob Eppinette, Walterboro, SC
Ups and downs
SCBT. S.C. Bank and Trust became the first bank in the state to repay its federal bailout last week. More: Post and Courier.
Payday lending. Some regulation is better than none; something other than a last-minute solution would have been even better. More: The State.
Port reform. The legislature’s other last-minute bill to restructure the State Ports Authority missed the mark in two ways: one, it won’t survive a gubernatorial veto three weeks from now, and two, it doesn’t answer the core question of, “Why send a politician to do a businessman’s job?” More: Post and Courier.
Legislature. You didn’t do much in 2009, but at least you didn’t bring back slavery.
Unemployment. With the state at 11.5 percent unemployment, or, 1 in 9 people you know out of a job, indentured servitude starts to look pretty good. More: The State.
Sanford. Suing the state at the end of the legislative session in federal court over the remaining $700 million in stimulus funds will get you another month of national attention … and nothing else you, or the state, want. More: The State.