S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, Nov. 25, 2007
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/07.1125.column.htm

When meeting less might mean more
By Andy Brack, Publisher

NOV. 25, 2007 - - Long meetings are pure drudgery for many because they're often run poorly, filled with windbags and about as fun as watching paint dry.

The only people in South Carolina who really seem to like meetings are the state's legislators, 170 people who spend five months every year in Columbia. From the beginning of January to early June, state lawmakers hit the highways every Tuesday to travel to the Statehouse to meet until Thursday.

Much of the work at the beginning of a session seems to be window-dressing - - debate on a few issues while the real work being done is getting together a bunch of information to complete the multi-billion state budget. At the beginning, the pace is relatively slow with endless meetings. As the budget solidifies, things move along a little quicker. By May, meetings are scheduled on top of meetings as issues collide and a session's end date is in sight.

So here's an idea pushed frequently by former House Speaker David Wilkins, now ambassador to Canada: Have state lawmakers meet less.

The lobby of the South Carolina Statehouse, where a lot of the real business gets done.

The benefits could be great. A cynic might think less time in meetings would produce fewer debates on divisive issues and generate fewer laws to interfere with the citizenry. A pragmatist might think less time at the Statehouse would save money and force lawmakers to focus on being more efficient in dealing with the real needs of the state.

About the only people hurt by such a move, some would say, would be editorial cartoonists, who would have less fodder with which to work (although in South Carolina, that would be debatable.)

At first blush, we thought of suggesting that state lawmakers meet every other year, instead of every year. The Kansas legislature did this for years until the mid 1950s, at which point Kansans realized they needed sessions in off-years for budgetary continuity. Some Southern states currently have a long session in odd-numbered years and a short session (say limited to 40 days) in even-numbered years. The shorter session generally focuses with budget issues.

So here's how South Carolinians might want to wrap their brains around legislative meetings: On odd-numbered years, meet for the regular session from January to June. In even-numbered years, meet no more than 40 legislative days, which would be about three months based on current schedules. In the new short session, official sessions would be limited to budgetary issues, although committees could work on any issue to prepare for fuller debates during the odd-numbered year.

Shifting to a shorter session every other year would ensure that budgetary work could be done with continuity. (Budget experts say doing two-year budgets would be tough because of the unpredictability of forecasting in longer cycles.)


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A shorter session also likely would have other spinoff effects:

  • Stronger board. The state Budget and Control Board might become slightly stronger as its day-to-day administrative work would have less oversight from the full General Assembly. This could result in efficiencies.

  • Effective governor. Shifting to shorter sessions also could free up time for a governor to work on his agenda, such as stimulating jobs, engaging in economic development and the like.

  • Savings. A shorter session would mean fewer meetings, which should allow some cost savings.

  • Better committees. A shorter session should guide lawmakers to take better and more advantage of the existing committee structure to probe and discuss issues fully before they get to the House or Senate floor. In current practice, committees - especially in the House - seem to be viewed as bothersome obstacles for members to get legislation to the floor, instead of places for serious debates on merits of big-ticket issues.

The downsides of having a shorter session include the potential for government agencies to become stronger, more inflexible and less accountable. Also, it could keep lawmakers from seriously addressing really big neglected policy issues that may not have a direct budgetary impact. Examples: the state's environmental laws or how it deals with poverty and hunger.

Having shorter sessions certainly is food for thought. The first rule for doctors is to do no harm. By shortening a session every other year, maybe state lawmakers could do the same.

Andy Brack, publisher of Statehouse Report, can be reached at: brack@statehousereport.com.

Recent commentary

This feature will be back next week.

lighter side

Another great cartoon from Bill McLemore:

Recent feedback

11/15: Diverting public funds, Dan Norfleet, Summerville, SC
11/5: Tax cut article shows more thinking needed, Deborah S. Nye, CGFO, Summit, SC

11/4: Property tax relief law was overkill for rich, Bob Henderson, North Charleston, SC
Brack makes scary assumptions, Michael Greer, Summerville, SC
10/30: Not removed on all grocery taxes, Bob Henderson, North Charleston, SC
10/28: More money won't help schools, David Whetsell, Lexington, SC
10/26: Venture program will have positive impact, Chad Walldorf, Mount Pleasant, SC
Leadership needed to strengthen state, Roxanne Walker, Greenville, SC
Solar power makes sense, Barbara Measter, Seabrook Island, SC
Not for tax breaks, Bob Logan, Little River, SC
State needs affordable medical help, birth control, Roxanne Walker, Greenville, SC


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To parole or to not parole
By Bill Davis, editor
Exclusive from the paid-subscriber issue of Statehouse Report

NOV. 16, 2007 -- Just what should South Carolina, and by extension, America, do with its crackheads and junkies?

That's really the question being posed by SC Attorney General Henry McMaster's renewed call this week to abolish parole for state crimes.

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Excerpts from The South Carolina Encyclopedia are published with permission and copyrighted 2006 by the Humanities Council SC. Excerpts were edited by Walter Edgar and published by the University of South Carolina Press. No republication is allowed.