Treasurer Loftis, Gov. Nikki Haley butt heads

S.C. treasurer covets transparency issues

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 28, 2011 

  • South Carolina's new state treasurer

    Age: 52

    Family: Single

    Office: State treasurer since January

    Political background: Director of Office on Aging under then-Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, director of transparency for Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom

    Other work: Founder and benefactor of Saluda Charitable Foundation, a Christian nonprofit that provides food, medical care and other aid to the poor and seniors in Ukraine, Bolivia and Ecuador

Considering the fights he is picking, new S.C. Treasurer Curtis Loftis may be bidding to be South Carolina's anti-Haley.

In the three months since setting foot in his blue office on the State House grounds, the former owner of a West Columbia bug-exterminating company has tussled regularly with equally new Gov. Nikki Haley over transparency - Haley's signature issue.

The two have disagreed on Haley's pick to head a state agency, over a meeting that Haley had with key budget decision-makers and over the sacking of the head of the State Retirement Systems.

And neither has been in office 100 days yet.

By his words and actions, Loftis, 52, a former staffer in the state comptroller general's office, where his job was to shed light on state government spending, seemingly is trying to wrest away the very issue that brought Haley to power.

But, seated in his office, Loftis waves off any talk that he is anti-Haley or trying to out-transparency the self-proclaimed transparency champion.

"Nikki has been a longtime friend, and I supported her," Loftis said of his fellow Lexington County Republican. "But I do feel her chief of staff and her Budget and Control Board director have a completely different view of transparency than I do."

Loftis characterizes his efforts as keeping campaign promises. He puts his calendar online, drives his own car to work - as opposed to using a state-provided one, as his predecessor did - and moved Budget and Control Board meetings to a larger space so more people can attend.

Loftis says he has been having fun - winning every county in June's primary and making waves over transparency recently.

But Haley still can lay claim to her hallmark issue.

She has pushed through a bill to require more on-the-record votes by lawmakers, kicked off a series of town-hall meetings statewide, previewed a report card that she will use to grade lawmakers and released her weekly calendar, and she has staffers videotape meetings and news events and put them online.

Haley is also forging a new relationship with a powerful legislator and fellow Budget and Control Board member, state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, the Florence Republican who chairs the Senate's Finance Committee.

That bond could bear future fruit, including a new Department of Administration that, advocates say, will increase accountability and make one person, the governor, responsible for a many parts of state government now overseen by the Budget and Control Board.

"As far as the governor is concerned, she has a great relationship with the treasurer and each member of the Budget and Control Board," said Rob Godfrey, Haley's spokesman. "The work they've done together has delivered positive results and good government reform for the taxpayers of our state in a short time."

Loftis said he is in favor of a Department of Administration and other accountability reforms.

"But," he adds, "it has to be done in the right way so it leads to more accountability, not less. I'm not sure we're heading in the direction of more transparency."

Not part of the club?

As treasurer, Loftis oversees the state's investment and banking decisions.

But much of his power comes from being one of five members of the Budget and Control Board, which oversees much of state government, managing property, overseeing the state's health insurance plan and retirement system, and more.

Despite his seat on the budget board, Loftis is not happy with its operation.

He says he must get approval from the budget board's director to speak to certain staffers at the agency. He also says he finds out about board decisions after they have been made behind closed doors.

"The spirit - and perhaps the letter of the law - is not being followed, and the agency has been turned into more of a Cabinet agency," he said.

"The board has always had transparency problems, but I think in the last two months it's gotten worse than ever."

Loftis, never one to hold his tongue, has become more vocal than ever.

Since he pulled his chair up to the Budget and Control Board's conference table, Loftis has:

Opposed Haley's selection of Eleanor Kitzman as the agency's director, saying he was not given a chance to interview her. After an interview was granted, Loftis agreed to back Kitzman.

Criticized Haley and Kitzman for what Loftis describes as a back-room deal to remove the director of the State Retirement Systems. Loftis says he was told about the sacking only after other board members had been asked to approve a new director.

Haley's spokesman said Kitzman did not need to get the budget board's approval to act, adding Loftis was resisting changes that will benefit the state.

Raised questions about a private meeting between Haley and two members of the budget board. State law bars a majority of members of any public board from meeting without first giving public notice. Afterward, Loftis requested and was given minutes from the meeting.

He also received a tart note from Haley's chief of staff saying the governor was holding many budget meetings and "being that [Loftis] is not a relevant player in those issues, Treasurer Loftis will not be invited to attend."

Loftis says he is being ill-treated.

"Kitzman was hired three weeks before I was told. I never saw an application. I was just told," Loftis said.

"Bill Blume, the new head of the multi-billion-dollar retirement system, was hired three weeks ago. I found out ... last Friday. This is not the kind of government I want to be part of. I don't want the people's business down in back-room deals."

State Rep. Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, also a Budget and Control Board member, said he too is worried about the budget board's openness but thinks the issue can be worked out.

Cooper said he, too, found out late about the removal of the retirement systems director and has yet to get a resume for Blume, the new retirement director.

"I'm not trying to protect the status quo," Cooper said. "But we have a responsibility to know what's going on, and we need to be informed to do that."

The Money

Loftis does not just criticize. He is also criticized by some.

They point to his hiring eight new staffers, including a chief of staff, since taking office.

When asked, Loftis pulls a spreadsheet off his desktop, showing he has added new staffers but also has lost seven people through retirements and attrition. Some replacements earn less than their predecessors, he said. For example, his new deputy state treasurer is paid $107,000 vs. a predecessor who was paid $117,000. His office's total salary increase is about $44,000, Loftis said.

"That number will come back in multiple," he said, pulling out a thick, bound report that he and a transition team of business owners, bankers, lawyers and others produced to better manage the state's money.

Those reforms include reviewing contracts with vendors, taking another look at state investments and increasing transparency in the part of the state retirement system that Loftis oversees.

Who is more transparent?

Whose version of transparency is better for the public - Haley's or Loftis'?

John Crangle, director of the nonprofit government watchdog group Common Cause of South Carolina, said Haley's transparency successes are overblown.

"It's empty rhetoric," he said, assessing her signature issue - requiring more legislative votes to be on the record - as not true transparency. "If you want to know how legislators voted and you have an IQ over 50, you can figure it out."

Crangle is reserving judgment on Loftis.

"If he insists that Nikki Haley and others follow procedures and open meeting laws, he's on solid ground," he said.

But, Crangle added, the public should be wary that transparency could become a meaningless political buzz word.

"Politicians regard it as a posture they can take that voters like," he said. "But there's a difference between taking that position and really bringing transparency to the public."

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