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Earmark reform not just federal issue

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Barton Swaim

Your state will spend around $25 billion this year. That is a vast amount of money, but you know virtually nothing about what’s being spent, or why. That’s not because you’re uninformed or lazy. The state budget is designed to be as opaque, secretive and abstruse as possible.

The state spending plan is supposed to begin with a hearing on the governor’s budget by the House and Senate budget committees, and by law that hearing is supposed to be open to the public. Unfortunately, lawmakers ignore that law. Instead, the budget begins in a dizzying array of committees and subcommittees, making it literally impossible for even experienced budget-watchers to have any firm idea of what’s happening.

About a third of the state budget consists of programs funded by the federal government – funds that cannot be spent without the General Assembly’s authorization (2-65-20 [5]). But the spending proposals are not analyzed, rarely if ever discussed or debated, and the policy prerogatives ceded by the state in order to draw down the funds are given away without a thought.

Even earmarks are anonymous. A senator or House member can insert a spending item into the budget and not go on record for having done so. How common is the practice? It’s hard to say – which is precisely the problem.

Last year, The Nerve.org revealed that a House member had personally inserted a $200,000 earmark for a nonprofit group of which she was the executive director (her salary: $82,967). But that only happened because the story’s author had obtained an internal House document. Items like that one may get slipped into the budget all the time, but it happens in secret.

The acuteness of the problem became even more apparent near the end of the 2014 session, when lawmakers avoided going to conference committee by hashing out the details behind closed doors.

Ordinarily the conference committee is the one stage in the process in which there is some small level of transparency: It’s far too late in the game for the public to do anything about the budget, but a few matters of contention at least get openly debated. This year, it didn’t happen. The reason? Legislative leaders wanted to pass a massive pay hike for lawmakers, and there are few things the public likes less than lawmakers voting themselves double-digit pay increases. So they avoided the problem by keeping it secret.

We’re quickly arriving at a point at which the public knows nothing about the state budget until it’s a done deal.

There was one sign of hope in 2014 when a few senators introduced the idea of making budget earmarks public.

Earmarks make up only a small fraction of the state budget, but lawmakers can use them to do political favors, to cultivate good will during an election year, or even – apparently – to support their own salaries. A bill in the Senate, S.1139, would have changed that practice in the Senate. It would have changed the Senate rules by requiring members to make formal requests for budget earmarks, and those requests would be made public. The bill is simple and admirably straightforward. Every earmark request must be accompanied by the name of the senator making the request, and each made public by the Senate Finance Committee.

“The committee shall maintain for public inspection during normal business hours a register containing a copy of each earmark request filed...and a copy of the earmark request must be published on the General Assembly’s website within three business days of filing.”

No earmark could be considered in the budget before the formal request has been made. Believe it or not, after a recent reform even Congress requires transparency in earmark funding.

The bill had 11 sponsors. But of course, it didn’t get a hearing. Why? Because if it had passed, the budget process would have become slightly – if only slightly – more transparent.

Barton Swaim is director of communications at the S.C. Policy Council.