A state Senate hearing into a recently-released audit of the Department of Social Services (DSS) on Friday was a mostly restrained affair — with one very notable exception.
That came when Gov. Nikki Haley’s chief-of-staff Ted Pitts briefly took questions from State Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, — one of Haley’s staunchest critics on DSS.
Pitts had been in attendance Friday while acting DSS director Amber Gillum outlined the agency’s new $6.4 million plan to eventually hire more than 200 new employees. The plan included a 10 percent raise for caseworkers and scores of new employees who could investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect.
That’s when Lourie began questioning if Gov. Haley would agree to the massive bump in spending after Gillum’s predecessor Lillian Koller spent three years insisting no new employees were needed. He asked Pitts to answer that question.
After Pitts was sworn in, Lourie asked if the governor would include the DSS plan as part of her proposed budget in January.
“Can you say, ‘yes,’ with certainty the governor will request 269 new positions?” Lourie asked.
“I will say ‘yes’ with certainty the plan the director just laid out will be funded in the (proposed) budget,” Pitts answered. “And we will look at the additional resources required by the agency. And we agree with you the most important issue facing the state now is to help get caseloads down.”
But Pitts, who served as a Republican in the South Carolina House of Representatives shortly before joining the governor’s staff in 2011, continued. He noted that lawmakers did not act to hire additional caseworkers after a 2006 audit found similar results.
“It said we have a problem with caseloads,” Pitts said. “It said we have a problem with salary range.”
Lourie then interrupted. “Mr. Pitts, you’re not here to talk about 2006.”
That irritated Pitts, who responded, “Let me finish.”
“I asked you a question,” Lourie shot back. “Yes or no?”
“If you’re going to ask the question, then let me answer the question,” Pitts snapped back.
At that point, the subcommittee chairman Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, tried to intervene. But Lourie remained insistent, “Mr. Chairman, I asked a simple question, okay? I didn’t ask for a political speech.”
As Young tried to restore order, Pitts retorted “We’ve been getting political speeches up here since you’ve been up there.”
“Mr. Chairman, this is highly inappropriate,” Lourie said to Young. Before the chairman could respond, Lourie then turned back to the chief of staff. “The simple question is ‘Yes or no’, Mr. Pitts, and that’s all. Yes or no?”
“The answer is ‘Yes.’ The governor is going to fully fund the director’s request that is before you now,” Pitts answered, now noticeably angry. “And we will take into consideration any additional requests our office has not received yet.”
“Thank you, Mr. Pitts,” Lourie replied. “Thank you,” Pitts said.
It’s not the first time that Lourie and Pitts have gotten testy with each other in a Senate hearing. The two also clashed during a 2011 meeting, when Lourie questioned if Haley staffers pressured regulators into authorizing a dredging permit on the Savannah River that would benefit Georgia. Pitts called the accusations “a stretch and political theater at its greatest.”