Senate Finance panel advances bill that keeps state running

A bill advanced Wednesday to the Senate floor that would keep South Carolina state government running if the fiscal year starts July 1 without a budget, but questions remain on how that would impact the Department of Transportation.

“I'll never be part of shutting down state government,” said Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.

The vote by the Senate Finance Committee, which Leatherman chairs, allows for a floor vote on the measure when the Legislature reconvenes next week.

A six-member committee of House and Senate members concluded Monday that it would be futile to try to get a compromise on the main, $7 billion budget bill with two surplus spending bills unresolved. How much of the roughly $400 million surplus should go to road repair remains the biggest holdup.

The resolution would keep agencies open and employees paid until legislators can get a budget in place for 2015-16.

“It’s purely a safety net, not a white flag,” said Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, a member of the budget conference committee.

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, suggested adding a deadline. He said he worries the open-ended resolution is “an invitation to a stalemate” that could continue through the fall.

“I don’t want it to be said the General Assembly is so dysfunctional it can’t even pass a budget on time,” he said.

Leatherman asked senators to make no changes to the resolution the House passed May 28, saying that would open up debate for a slew of other proposed amendments. But he guaranteed a budget will be passed, suggesting legislators could get it done by working through the last weekends of June.

The regular session ended June 4. The resolution that created the special session has it starting Tuesday and ending two days later. But no one expects that to happen. Additional days can be added.

Perhaps the biggest uncertainty with running government on a continuing resolution is how that would affect the Department of Transportation’s leadership.

A 2007 law that restructured the DOT made it a Cabinet agency and gave the governor the power to appoint its director. But that provision expires July 1. Legislators expected to deal with the sunset clause as part of a road-funding bill. But that bill never received a vote on the Senate floor due to a filibuster in the session’s waning weeks by Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who opposes increasing gas taxes to pay for roadwork. He also wants further reform of DOT’s governing structure before the agency is given more money.

Davis, as well as a coalition of nonprofit groups, said at a news conference later Wednesday that reform must be what legislators focus on when debate on the bill resumes in January. The current system means no one is accountable to voters for road-funding decisions, they said.

A proposed budget clause would maintain the current structure for a year, in hopes legislators can reach agreement next session on how to fix South Carolina’s roads. But without a budget, the agency could be governed solely by a legislatively appointed commission, which could hire a director.

Currently, the director answers to both Gov. Nikki Haley and the commission. Haley wants legislators to abolish the commission.

Director Janet Oakley turned in her resignation last week, just 13 months after taking the job. She offered then to stay in the position until Haley finds her replacement.

Peeler questioned whether the agency could be leaderless July 1.

Depending on how budget talks progress Tuesday, Davis said, he may propose amending the continuing resolution to remove that uncertainty.