Editorialists and commentators have chastised the South Carolina legislature relentlessly for failing to get anything done during the 2015 session. In fact, though, legislators did plenty of work.
This year our Legislature met from January to July, and during that time 1,336 bills were filed between the House and Senate. Of those, 131 were passed by lawmakers. In addition, 950 resolutions were filed, and all but 64 of those passed.
The question, of course, is this: How many of these were actually worth legislators spending more than half a year in Columbia?
The length of South Carolina’s legislative session has consequences. Studies have found that professional, full-time legislatures are more prone to pressure from lobbyists — and this translates into higher spending and more favors for special interests.
Consider this year’s attempt to deal with roads. There are two ways to devote new revenue to roads: raise taxes or cut spending. But lobbyists — in this case, lobbyists working for companies and industries that would benefit from additional spending on roads — aren’t going to urge lawmakers to pay for new road projects by cutting other parts of government. They’re going to urge tax hikes.
And thanks to South Carolina’s long legislative session, they had plenty of time to do it. In the end, thanks to citizen groups raising the alarm, they weren’t successful. That’s a rarity, unfortunately, and tax hike supporters are sure to be back in January.
According to one media account, toward the end of session legislative leaders even tried to prevent the Board of Economic Advisers from publicizing a revenue surplus, presumably on the grounds that a surplus would undermine the argument for a tax hike. That simply couldn’t have happened without a lengthy session.
Or take ethics reform. The year began with a few good proposals, but the longer they sat in committees, the longer lawmakers had to water them down or amend them with insidious provisions. A bill to reform the state’s Freedom of Information Act gained a provision allowing government agencies to take citizens to court for filing “frivolous” FOIA requests.
A bill to require elected officials to disclose their sources of income eventually included a provision loosening requirements on disclosing government income. And so on. The longer the session went on, in other words, the more pointless these bills became.
Or consider the debate over the bond bill. House lawmakers introduced a bill to issue bond debt and use the money for a variety of largely unnecessary projects connected to state colleges and universities. It would have been difficult for lawmakers to pass such a controversial bill within the confines of a short session.
As it was, though, they were able to introduce the bill; then take it off the floor when the Policy Council and (separately) Gov. Nikki Haley raised objections; then find ways to pay for the new projects through the General Fund; and then spend much of the rest of the session trying to figure out how to pass the bond bill anyway, which they were almost able to do.
In short: our excessively long session gave the Statehouse complex — lawmakers, lobbyists, consultants, various special interests — plenty of time to weaken reform, make tax hikes more likely and spend every last available dime of revenue.
What should a session-shortening bill look like? A sensible reform would be to mandate an end to sessions by the second Friday in April, making each one last roughly 90 calendar days, and holding session every two years. This would encourage lawmakers to use their time — and our money — more wisely.
Members of the House argue that they pass a bill every year to shorten the session, but the Senate ignores it. That may be technically true, but this year, anyway, the bill they passed was anemically weak.
The House of Representatives passed a bill that cut a mere 10 days off session. The Senate’s bill would have shortened session by three months. It wasn’t passed, but at least it was worthy of passing.
Our legislature’s job is to ensure that citizens’ rights are protected. After they do that, they should go home. More time leads to more mischief.
Cecilia Brown works as a research assistant at TheNerve.org and its parent organization, the S.C. Policy Council.