The much-talked about Department of Administration bill sputtered to a slow death in the Senate Thursday.
In the final hour and a half of the Senate session, Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin pressed his colleagues to vote on the measure to overhaul the day-to-day functions of state government.
“All this work, all this effort, down the tubes…why?” he asked.
But Martin and his fellow conferees knew the answer to this days ago, as the bill advanced and some Democratic Leaders and a prominent Republican stood in the way. Despite Gov. Nikki Haley’s meetings with key legislators this week and press conferences in which she beseeched the Senate to move on the issue, the bill never got to a final vote in that chamber.
The measure did away with and redistributed the workings of the current Budget and Control Agency– and its high-powered, five-member board. South Carolina is the only state that has this structure and both parties agree that the agency is cumbersome and sometimes is at times redundant with other agencies.
But Budget and Control Board member and Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman says this is not the same plan he supported when the session began two years ago.
“I and my staff worked with the governor and her staff a long, long time last year. We reached an agreement. And then of course, when it got into the legislative process which was Judiciary, not Finance (committee), I did not have any input into it.
Leatherman’s preferred plan included a Budget and Control Board-like structure, which was done away with. He says the final version also did not insulate the Board of Economic Advisors (BEA)and other state economists from outside influence when they make projections for the state budget and determine the economic impact of legislation. He also disapproved of the Legislature being called in when a state agency may be facing deficit spending. This is currently handled by the Budget and Control Board.
“The General Assembly probably would have become a permanent body, not part-time,” says Leatherman.
Edgefield Senator Shane Massey was one of the conference committee negotiators. He agrees,”I think the most frustrating thing, too, was we knew we were going to have opposition from the folks who really were very protective of the existing structure and we gave up a lot in order to get them to go along with it and they still blocked us.”
A few Democratic leaders also had some problems with the plan. Sen. Gerald Malloy, another conferee says he was not sure what would happen when they began dismantling something as monolithic as the B&C Board agency.
“As it unravels, we are uncertain of what it will really do,” says Malloy.
Republican supporters of the bill, like Massey, call that a red herring. “The Senate debated this legislation more in this year that we did have debated all the budget bills since I have been in the Senate.”
However Massey admits, “It was by no means perfect. If I were writing it all myself, it would have been considerably different.”
Outspoken Democratic leader Brad Hutto of Orangeburg says it was more about the Senate’s priorities this week — and DOA was not one of them.
“The priorities were the budget and the retirement bill. There was the attempt to put the politics of giving the governor a victory, or having the DOA pass, over what really the people want to make sure we get done,” Hutto says.
But Democrat Vincent Sheheen, who has been working on this issue for almost a decade, says, “I’m frustrated. I’ve seen what I thought was a really good work product that the Senate created several months ago get watered down by the House and in conference committee and then presented to us to vote on. I’m willing to take that step even though it has some problems with it because I think it moves us forward, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Sheheen says the atmosphere for this measure was not right: “For real change to occur, there has to be consensus between Democrats and Republicans and there has to be trust between the governor’s office and the legislative body and I really think that’s lacking right.”
“Hopefully next year we can move forward on it and maybe rebuild those relationship,” he adds.
The bill has to start over with the new 2013-14 legislative session.
Sen. Massey thinks the bill has lost momentum now, after two years of struggle
“But it needs to happen,” he says. “It’s going to have to happen to modernize the system of government that we have.”