COLUMBIA — A bill representing the largest overhaul of state government in decades is again approaching passage, with both Gov. Nikki Haley and her chief Democratic opponent working to get it to her desk in the waning weeks of South Carolina’s legislative session.
The House passed its version last week. The measure is aimed at modernizing government and making it more accountable. The 91-23 vote came nearly three months after senators passed their plan, chiefly sponsored by Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who is expected to again be Haley’s Democratic opponent in 2014.
“They both have managed to very effectively push the Department of Administration toward passage,” House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, said of Haley and Sheheen. “Both of them have acted maturely and responsibly. They haven’t let political gamesmanship or credit get in the way of what needs to be done.”
When asked about the politically odd endeavor, however, Haley’s spokesman, Rob Godfrey, blamed Sheheen for the bill’s demise last year, as he was among senators who voted against ending debate and forcing a vote on a proposed compromise in the session’s final hours. Meanwhile, Sheheen got in his own dig, saying he’s sponsored and fought for similar legislation for years before Haley took it up.
“It’s interesting that she’s adopted my signature issue as her signature issue, but I think sometimes mimicry is the highest form of flattery,” said Sheheen, D-Camden.
What’s important, he said, is passing a bill that empowers and gives more responsibility to both the executive and legislative branches, bringing South Carolina’s government to the 21st century.
The House and Senate have three weeks left to approve a compromise. The bill eluded former Gov. Mark Sanford throughout his tenure and caused two state Supreme Court fights.
The bill breaks up the little-understood-but-maligned Budget and Control Board and divvies up its duties among existing and new agencies. Most of its 1,000 employees would transfer to a new, Cabinet-level Department of Administration that puts the governor in control of bureaucratic duties such as fleet and property management and janitorial services – responsibilities nearly all other governors have as the state’s chief executive officer.
The measure also requires the Legislature to have more oversight of state agencies, by requiring hearings and periodic reviews.
It also means an end to the powerful, five-member commission that oversees the Budget and Control Board and is the final say for a broad array of state government, including public borrowing, construction contracts and midyear budget reductions during downturns.
Critics have long argued the hybrid commission – consisting of the governor, comptroller general, treasurer, and chairmen of the House and Senate budget-writing committees – puts too much power in one body that carries out legislative and executive functions.
It’s also not an efficient way to run government, Bannister said.
“To the small business owner who knows how difficult it is to run a business by committee, we’re setting state government to run with an executive officer, so it can be as efficient as business can be,” he said.
Sanford sought for years to dismantle the Budget and Control Board, and even vetoed its funding in 2010 as a way to force what he couldn’t accomplish legislatively, though the state’s high court later deemed his veto unconstitutional. While the governor serves as chairman of the oversight panel, Sanford often came down on the losing side of 3-2 votes.
Haley made getting rid of what she calls the “big, green, ugly monster” a centerpiece of her agenda as she took office in 2011. While both chambers passed plans to do so that year, the session ended in June without a compromise. Her order that legislators return to Columbia to hash it out prompted a showdown before the state Supreme Court, which ruled she overstepped her authority.
The entire process began anew this year, with the Senate taking the lead.
Sheheen worked with Republican Sen. Shane Massey to push it through in February – record speed for a chamber where the effort has died for years. The House version passed Wednesday represented the fifth time that chamber has approved the idea. It closely follows last year’s compromise, in hopes that helps speed up what Bannister called the “ultimate solution.”
“House members deserve credit for taking the next step in this process,” Godfrey said. “But the work isn’t finished, and the governor won’t stop fighting until the restructuring South Carolinians want and deserve is a reality.”