In South Carolina, two obscure constitutional officers and two legislators share equal say with the governor in allocating office space to state agencies, managing state-owned property and inter-agency mail and overseeing the state’s vehicle fleet and scores more executive duties.
Those two legislators have equal say with the three executive officers on the Budget and Control Board in deciding whether state agencies can ignore the budget that was passed by the rest of the legislature and run a deficit or borrow money from another agency.
Meanwhile, the only routine review the legislature performs on state agencies comes by way of annual budget hearings – which can last less than 15 minutes, and are held by as few as three legislators.
It is, in short, a system that dilutes gubernatorial authority, steals legislative authority, obliterates the concept of accountability (if five people are in charge, no one is in charge) and blurs the line between executive and legislative in a way that offends the constitution and makes it nearly impossible for either to do its job well.
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And so we have, as Sen. Vincent Sheheen explained last week, a government on autopilot: “The executive branch doesn’t know what’s happening, and the legislative branch doesn’t know what’s happening, so we have these eruptions about once every year.”
There’s got to be a better way.
And indeed there is. A bill debated in the Senate this week would eliminate the Budget and Control Board, dispatching most of its executive duties to a new Department of Administration controlled by the governor and giving its legislative duties back to the legislature.
It would let the governor act like a governor – with the tools to control central administrative functions from property and fleet management to IT. And it would require the legislature to act like a legislature – eliminating the budgetary bypass mechanism and transforming lawmakers’ primary job from writing laws to providing oversight of the way executive agencies administer those laws, and making changes based on this new knowledge. Thus it gives greater power to both the governor and the legislature – and makes it more difficult for both to shift blame to others or shirk their responsibilities.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been talking about it for five years. The House and Senate have been talking intensely about the same plan for the past year. Yet even after both bodies passed a bill and they worked out their relatively minor differences, Senate opponents blocked a final vote before the legislature adjourned last year, and the bill died.
The bill suffered a near death after opponents succeeded in sending it to the legislative purgatory of the Senate Finance Committee, which is chaired by one of the two members of the General Assembly who will lose power if it becomes law.
There’s nothing wrong with giving the bill a closer look; in fact, senators should engage in vigorous debate over how to improve it. But they can do that on the Senate floor.
Importantly, supporters also secured a promise that it would return to the Senate floor for debate on Feb. 20.
It still faces high hurdles. Senate rules allow a tiny minority to prevent a vote on any bill. And allowing this one to lose its place at the top of the Senate calendar may doom it – and doom all of us to more government on autopilot.