Sunday, Nov. 25, 2007
meeting less might mean more
NOV. 25, 2007 - - Long meetings are pure drudgery for many
because they're often run poorly, filled with windbags and
about as fun as watching paint dry.
The only people in South Carolina who really seem to like
meetings are the state's legislators, 170 people who spend
five months every year in Columbia. From the beginning of
January to early June, state lawmakers hit the highways every
Tuesday to travel to the Statehouse to meet until Thursday.
Much of the work at the beginning of a session seems to be
window-dressing - - debate on a few issues while the real
work being done is getting together a bunch of information
to complete the multi-billion state budget. At the beginning,
the pace is relatively slow with endless meetings. As the
budget solidifies, things move along a little quicker. By
May, meetings are scheduled on top of meetings as issues collide
and a session's end date is in sight.
So here's an idea pushed frequently by former House Speaker
David Wilkins, now ambassador to Canada: Have state lawmakers
lobby of the South Carolina Statehouse, where a lot
of the real business gets done.
The benefits could be great. A cynic might think less time
in meetings would produce fewer debates on divisive issues
and generate fewer laws to interfere with the citizenry. A
pragmatist might think less time at the Statehouse would save
money and force lawmakers to focus on being more efficient
in dealing with the real needs of the state.
About the only people hurt by such a move, some would say,
would be editorial cartoonists, who would have less fodder
with which to work (although in South Carolina, that would
At first blush, we thought of suggesting that state lawmakers
meet every other year, instead of every year. The Kansas legislature
did this for years until the mid 1950s, at which point Kansans
realized they needed sessions in off-years for budgetary continuity.
Some Southern states currently have a long session in odd-numbered
years and a short session (say limited to 40 days) in even-numbered
years. The shorter session generally focuses with budget issues.
So here's how South Carolinians might want to wrap their
brains around legislative meetings: On odd-numbered years,
meet for the regular session from January to June. In even-numbered
years, meet no more than 40 legislative days, which would
be about three months based on current schedules. In the new
short session, official sessions would be limited to budgetary
issues, although committees could work on any issue to prepare
for fuller debates during the odd-numbered year.
Shifting to a shorter session every other year would ensure
that budgetary work could be done with continuity. (Budget
experts say doing two-year budgets would be tough because
of the unpredictability of forecasting in longer cycles.)
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A shorter session also likely would have other spinoff effects:
- Stronger board. The state Budget and Control Board
might become slightly stronger as its day-to-day administrative
work would have less oversight from the full General Assembly.
This could result in efficiencies.
- Effective governor. Shifting to shorter sessions
also could free up time for a governor to work on his agenda,
such as stimulating jobs, engaging in economic development
and the like.
- Savings. A shorter session would mean fewer meetings,
which should allow some cost savings.
- Better committees. A shorter session should guide
lawmakers to take better and more advantage of the existing
committee structure to probe and discuss issues fully before
they get to the House or Senate floor. In current practice,
committees - especially in the House - seem to be viewed
as bothersome obstacles for members to get legislation to
the floor, instead of places for serious debates on merits
of big-ticket issues.
The downsides of having a shorter session include the potential
for government agencies to become stronger, more inflexible
and less accountable. Also, it could keep lawmakers from seriously
addressing really big neglected policy issues that may not
have a direct budgetary impact. Examples: the state's environmental
laws or how it deals with poverty and hunger.
Having shorter sessions certainly is food for thought. The
first rule for doctors is to do no harm. By shortening a session
every other year, maybe state lawmakers could do the same.
Andy Brack, publisher of Statehouse Report,
can be reached at: email@example.com.
This feature will be back next week.
Another great cartoon from Bill McLemore:
public funds, Dan Norfleet, Summerville, SC
cut article shows more thinking needed, Deborah S.
Nye, CGFO, Summit, SC
tax relief law was overkill for rich, Bob Henderson,
North Charleston, SC
makes scary assumptions, Michael Greer, Summerville,
removed on all grocery taxes, Bob Henderson,
North Charleston, SC
money won't help schools, David Whetsell,
program will have positive impact, Chad Walldorf,
Mount Pleasant, SC
needed to strengthen state, Roxanne Walker, Greenville,
power makes sense, Barbara Measter, Seabrook Island,
for tax breaks, Bob Logan, Little River, SC
needs affordable medical help, birth control, Roxanne
Walker, Greenville, SC
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