South Carolina's Senate has never been known as a reform-minded body. In fact, it was designed from the start to be conservative in the traditional sense of that word: resistant to change, any change, good or bad.
And reforms are, by definition, changes. That resistance to change still prevails today — through rules that allow a single senator to prevent debate on all but the most important legislation — regardless of whether the change is good or bad, whether it meets the modern definition of "liberal" or "conservative."
So it's particularly encouraging that the Senate is leading the way on reforming South Carolina's secretive process of doling out tax money for legislators' favorite projects.
Even before Gov. Henry McMaster could renew his call for earmark reform during his State of the State address, the Senate had already amended its rules with a better reform, designed to remove the secrecy from the process. In fact, that was the first thing the Senate did after it swore in members at the opening of the 2021 General Assembly.
The new rule, designed by Senate Republican Leader Shane Massey, won't prevent the legislature from funding boondoggles or even smart programs that simply ought to be paid for by local taxpayers or individuals. But it will ensure that senators, and the public, finally know how money is being spent on those special appropriations, and who is behind them. It does so by prohibiting the Senate from voting on the state budget until the Senate Finance Committee chairman provides a list of all earmarks, along with who requested them, how much they cost and "an explanation of the project or program." The rule applies to any "appropriation for a specific program or project not originating with a written agency budget request or not included in an appropriations act from the prior fiscal year."
It also requires a written explanation of any earmarks included in the final version of the budget negotiated by a House-Senate conference committee, although that explanation only has to identify which body made the request.
That points to the obvious shortcoming of the rule: It doesn't identify the House sponsors of earmarks. House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith told The Post and Courier's Seanna Adcox last year that he intended to lift the veil of secrecy from House earmarks, but we need more than a single legislator's promise. The House should adopt its own version of the Senate rule.
Democratic Sen. Dick Harpootlian, one of the leaders in the bipartisan anti-earmark campaign, told us that while he and Massey believe the rule will out all those local parks and fire trucks and civic programs that might or might not be worthwhile, "we won't know until we try to use it" and see whether budget writers discover a way around it.
Critics of the rule predicted precisely that last year when the sponsors rolled out a similar proposal, noting that lawmakers could just go directly to state agency directors and ask them to include their special projects in those agencies' budgets. And that could happen, but it's doubtful, because that misunderstands the point and the process of earmarks.
Agency directors wouldn't grant such requests from most legislators, even if most legislators had the audacity to ask. They fund the earmarks because the money is in the state budget and instructions on how to spend it comes from the House and Senate budget writers or, more often, their staff. Although budget writers certainly claim their share of funding for their own pet projects, they mostly use earmarks as a tool, offering them to legislators who otherwise wouldn't have the clout to get their projects funded in return for those lawmakers' vote to pass the entire state budget.
We should never have to do government that way, but perhaps we do. Even so, there's no justification for the secretive process South Carolina uses: No official budget documents exist to explain or even identify earmarks. The public has no way of finding out what's being funded until long after the budget has been debated and passed. Most legislators don't even know.
Hence the new Senate rule, which was tucked into a rewrite of the Senate's entire set of operating rules — something that is produced every four years after a new Senate is sworn in. While other rule changes attracted extensive debate, no one spoke against the earmark reform.
That's either a really encouraging sign that senators have finally come to recognize that there is simply no way to defend spending the public's money so secretly — or else an indication that the reformers have been bamboozled again. Here's hoping it's the former.
This editorial is from The Post and Courier of Charleston via The Associated Press.