Columbia, SC (Greenville News) -- Legislators plan next year to dramatically change the State Budget and Control Board, whose five-member panel wields power over all of state government and last week placed a moratorium on college building projects, lawmakers told The Greenville News.
While much of the planned change is aimed at the underlying agency, some lawmakers say the powerful five-member board, which has controlled much of the state's finances for 60 years, may be changed or even abolished.
"I would venture to say that the board itself will not exist any more," said Rep. Dan Cooper, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and one of the five current members.
Sen. Larry Martin, a Pickens Republican who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, said the moratorium decision may change the board's power, if it does exist after restructuring.
"It does raise serious questions of how much authority the Legislature has ceded to that board," he said.
The underlying agency, which has 1,000 employees, has been a target of Gov. Mark Sanford and conservatives in the Legislature for years to be transferred under the executive branch.
The agency in its history has had a hand in a variety of government services, ranging from crafting state budgets to operating a military museum, auditing other agencies, holding billions of dollars in pension funds and constructing much of the Capitol Complex.
And the five-member board, which includes the governor, state treasurer, state comptroller general, and chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees, regularly grants approval for millions of dollars in capital projects, land purchases or sales and building leases, in addition to approving the issuance of bonds to raise millions of dollars for agencies, colleges and other institutions.
The board also has the authority to cut agency budgets across the board in the event of falling revenue estimates. It approves any agency running a deficit and oversees the state's retirement fund and employees' health insurance system.
The panel's power is reflected at each meeting as dozens of lobbyists, bond attorneys and agency officials squeeze into a conference room on the Capitol Complex to stand, sometimes for hours, as the board's five members go through agenda items.
Transferring some of that power to the executive branch has been a goal for years approved by House lawmakers but stymied in the Senate, where some senators hesitated at handing over too much power to the governor.
"We're a legislatively dominated state and the Legislature has really slowly been giving more power to the chief executive," said Sen. Larry Grooms, a Berkeley County Republican.
"I think we need to. We should make the laws, and the governor should execute the laws. More power has been given to the Governor's Office, but it has been a very, very slow process."
The panel was officially created in 1950, an experiment in compromise between the legislative and executive branches.
"I think South Carolina has always been very cautious about putting too much power in any one individual," said Sen. John Land, the leader of Senate Democrats and a lawmaker since 1975.
Land said the experiment has worked for most of the board's history because it was viewed by officials as a cooperative effort by legislative leaders and constitutional officers.
Some of the state's premier politicians for the last 50 years served on the board, including former U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, who proposed the board as governor as part of a reorganization plan; former U.S. Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings; former U.S. Education Secretary Dick Riley; former Senate President Pro Tempore Rembert Dennis and former House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tempore Edgar Brown.
The board's functions have changed over the years as state government has grown. From1950 until 1994, for example, the board was responsible for creating the initial version of the state budget, something now done by the governor.
Other functions have grown with the size of government, including its General Services Division, which manages the state's buildings and land; the State Fleet Management office, responsible for the state motor pool; its procurement office and its personnel division.
Earlier this year, Sanford vetoed the agency's $29 million in operating funds, vetoes sustained by lawmakers worried over this year's shortfall in revenues. He and Frank Fusco, the agency's executive director, subsequently identified alternative sources of funds to keep the agency operating until January.
But the use of $13 million from the state's rural infrastructure fund spawned a lawsuit alleging the vetoes and transfer of money were unconstitutional. The state Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.
Among the agency's operations threatened with the funding shortfall, Fusco said, are its budget office, the Board of Economic Advisors, the state's accounting system and the military museum.
Legislators said any plan to break up the agency will likely transfer the bulk of the agency's administrative functions to the governor, with certain functions such as human resources or procurement being kept to prevent the governor from having too much power.
Other functions of the board could be sent to other agencies, while the routine approvals handled by the five-member panel could continue in some form, be handed to other panels or scrapped, some lawmakers and board members said.
Treasurer Converse Chellis said he would like to see the capital projects process streamlined because of the time it takes projects to move through the system. But he said he sees a need for the board in the event midyear budget cuts are necessary.
"I don't know what it's going to look like," said Cooper, who added that many state agencies may be changed next year to cut costs and improve service in the face of a $1 billion budget shortfall.
Last week, the Budget and Control Board's members voted unanimously to suspend any campus building projects if the school had raised tuition above a certain level. The projects could resume if the school certified it would lower its tuition to that level.
Sanford had sought a moratorium on college projects for years, arguing that the state couldn't afford to maintain so many new buildings no matter what source of funds was used for construction.
Martin said such a decision is effectively policy making, something that is the job of lawmakers who already approve such projects with bond decisions.
"I think that one decision will be something that will be talked about next session in the context of how that power, if you want to call it that, is shifted around," he said.
Professor Mark Tompkins, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina, said he believes it is possible that legislators are willing to scrap the panel for multiple reasons, among them a lack of enthusiasm to oversee the daily grind of government and the possibility that if GOP nominee Nikki Haley is elected governor, she would join Curtis Loftis, who is unopposed in the treasurer's race and Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom as a change-oriented block on the board.
"I think pragmatically speaking, it just loses its reason for being," he said of the board.