Finish the budget, then go home

The South Carolina Statehouse. (Grace Beahm/File)

One essential duty of the S.C. General Assembly is approving a budget, but in this year of legislative impasse even that’s apparently too much to expect. Without a decision next week, state government will have to operate on a continuing resolution after June 30. That is not an acceptable option.

Indeed, that’s the way Congress has “solved” its partisan budget impasses over the years, to the detriment of its public reputation. It is hardly an example for the Legislature to follow.

The sticking point reportedly is a disagreement among budget conferees, mostly Republican, over how to spend $418 million in surplus funds from the current fiscal year.

The Senate wants to spend the money to give a bonus to state employees, pay for ice storm damage and provide funding for road and bridge repairs. The House wants to use it for road and bridge improvements and further reducing state debt — and has a worthy proposal to pay off $70 million of incentives for Volvo instead of borrowing the money. It would save the state millions in interest payments.

Those hardly appear to be insurmountable differences. Why drag it out, further bringing into question the capacity of the Legislature to reach a decision?

So far, the General Assembly has failed to produce legislation for overdue ethics reform, a badly needed highway funding plan, a bond bill for higher education and now the budget. Senate business was virtually brought to a halt by a needless filibuster in the last three weeks of the regular session.

This year’s session has done nothing to encourage confidence in the Legislature, and lawmakers are quickly running out of time to show their constituents they can be responsible stewards of the state’s business.

Meanwhile, there will be a reform casualty if action on the budget is further delayed. A budget proviso would stay a 2007 mandate to eliminate the Cabinet position of secretary of transportation as of July 1, under a provision inserted in the 2007 reform act. If conferees and the Legislature fail to adopt a budget on time, the choice of DOT administration will be taken from the governor and returned to the highway commission. There are some legislators who favor the good old boy system that keeps power from the state’s chief executive, and this would be a backdoor way of eliminating an important reform. Legislators should not be duped into allowing that to happen.

Without knowing what’s in the approved budget, legislators won’t know how to proceed on spending capital reserve funds, which could be used for higher education projects, or highways or bridges, as needed.

If the legislative session is further extended, this do-little Legislature will be further derided for doing less. Lawmakers need to demonstrate their ability to act decisively on a spending plan before the end of the fiscal year.