Much legislative work done in committees

  • Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Jim Merrill

Those who visit the statehouse or watch on television consistently watch short or inconsequential meetings take place on the floor of the House. And it is true that there is not much need for the entire House of Representatives to meet in full session every day because the actual time-consuming work is taking place in committee.

The primary reason for meeting in the chamber is that the House must be in session for the committees to meet. Furthermore, legislation that is introduced must be “read” for the first time across the desk where it is then referred to committee. The Speaker receives each bill and reads its title and subject. He then refers it to the appropriate committee where the initial debate takes place.

The House’s major standing committees each deal with different subject matter. They are Ways and Means (budget and fiscal matters); Labor Commerce and Industry; Agriculture; Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs; Education and Public Works; Judiciary; and Medical, Military Public and Municipal Affairs.

The House meets in full session for bills to be introduced. The bills are then read across the desk and assigned to the appropriate committee. The committees then assign them to subcommittees in which public hearings and testimony are conducted and received. Approved legislation is then returned to full committee where it can either be approved or disapproved. Bills that are approved are then returned to the floor where they are presented to the full House of Representatives.

Unless there are special circumstances this process takes a few weeks - and that is for legislation that is at the front of the queue. Considering that thousands of bills are introduced each session the process can often be tremendously slow.

I serve on the Ways and Means Committee. Our first priority is to write the next year’s state budget. Current state appropriations are somewhere around the $7 billion figure. Add in federal dollars and it is many times that amount. Before we can begin to discuss tax issues, funding formulas, regulations, etc, Ways and Means must write the budget so it can be sent to the Senate for consideration. The vast majority of our first two months in session take place in committee hearing rooms instead of on the floor.

The unfortunate part of this process is that all committees do not have a similar workload. Newer legislators spend a good bit of time trying to figure out the system. The result is that about half the General Assembly is swamped while the other half spends a good bit of time roaming the halls.

That is why two bills that are being discussed are so important. One would shorten the legislative session and the other would allow committees to meet without the full House being present. I think that both of these initiatives would save taxpayer dollars and they would also increase efficiency and create an impetus for addressing legislation in a timely manner.

Of note is the fact that over the past decade the S.C. House of Representatives has repeatedly passed legislation to shorten the session. Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to this significant reform is the South Carolina Senate. Because of its arcane rules one Senator can prevent a bill from being debated, and this occurs each and every year. Perhaps this will be the year that Senators address this unwieldy situation and help streamline our legislative process? One can only hope.

Over the next few weeks, as committees vote out legislation, there will be an increasing number of bills debated on the floor by the full House. For most Representatives, it will be the first time they have heard the pros and cons of each bill - especially those that were amended in committee.

Ways and Means is debating the state budget in full committee this week and it will be presented to the full House beginning March 11. I am chairman of the Legislative, Executive and Local Government committee - which deals with the majority of state and executive agencies and the budget provisos. Our emphasis this year has been “truth in budgeting”.

Too many agencies have been growing exponentially because of the existence of a little known category called “Other funds.” “Other funds” are fees and fines that are collected and authorized to be spent by the agency.

This authorization builds upon itself in each subsequent budget and many agencies have been stockpiling these funds to hire employees or expend them outside of public view. This year my committee has spent an exhaustive amount of time removing unnecessary authorization and transferring necessary spending to the “recurring” lines of the budget. This will allow future budget writers and state taxpayers to know the “real” cost for an agency’s operations.

(Rep. Jim Merrill (R) is the former Majority Leader of the S.C. House of Representatives and represents District 99 which covers parts of Hanahan, Daniel Island, Mount Pleasant, Goose Creek, Cainhoy and North Charleston.)

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