5-member State Budget and Control Board Could be Abolished

5:38 PM, Oct 7, 2010   |    comments
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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.

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