COLUMBIA — The chairman of the state House's powerful budget-writing panel — who helps shape the spending of billions in state tax dollars each year — was ousted from his post a month before the legislative session starts.
House Speaker Jay Lucas reassigned Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian White on Wednesday to the chamber's panel that oversees business-related legislation.
The Anderson Republican, who was elected budget chief under Lucas' predecessor, Bobby Harrell, in 2011, is known for making key decisions without consulting the speaker. White, an insurance agent, said Wednesday he is proud of his accomplishments as chairman and will continue to serve his constituents in the seat he's held for 18 years.
In a statement, White said Lucas informed him Tuesday evening the GOP caucus wasn't happy with his leadership. That was followed by his demotion.
"Throughout my service, I have always tried to do what's right for the state and the people of South Carolina without regard to political considerations," White said.
Lucas, a Hartsville Republican, handed out committee assignments Wednesday morning. Word of White's expected removal came hours after Lucas won a third term as speaker Tuesday during the House's organizational meeting.
While calling White a "good man, a friend" and an excellent chairman, Lucas said in a statement he believes "positive change is necessary to diligently address upcoming budget items."
He did not give any specifics, and his office said he was not available for questions.
As expected, the committee elected Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, to succeed White at the top of Ways and Means. Smith has chaired the budget subcommittee for health care spending since 2011. Like White, Smith was first elected by voters in 2000.
"We're a team here, guys," Smith told his colleagues following the vote for chairman. "It's an honor for me to be elected. We're going to get through this, and we're going to have a good budget this year."
Smith's ascension is part of a leadership shift in three of the House's most influential committees.
Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, was elected chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which handles 40 percent of all bills. Former chair and Rep. Greg Delleney of Chester retired from office.
The House Ethics Committee, which watches over lawmakers, also is seeking a new leader since Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, stepped aside following a heart attack in October. His doctor told him to de-stress, he said. That committee's next chairman will be decided in January.
Pitts, who also sits on Ways and Means, warned Smith after the vote his new position could be fleeting.
"Watch your back because the same subversive forces are still out there," he said during the meeting.
Afterward, he said White's removal was handled very poorly, without advance notice or explanation to White or other committee leader.
"I think it was crappy," said Pitts, who has chaired the budget subcommittee for law enforcement.
White will have a very different role in the House.
As chairman of Ways and Means, White had more control over how billions of tax dollars are spent than any other legislator, with one exception: Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, who's also the chairman of Senate Finance, that chamber's budget-writing committee.
White's power also came from the Ways and Means chairman sitting on boards where state agencies must win approval for big-ticket projects and loans: the State Fiscal Accountability Authority, a panel led by the governor, and the Joint Bond Review Committee, a legislative panel.
Ousting a committee chairman through a reassignment is a rare move — unheard of in recent memory, particularly for the House's most powerful committee.
The House speaker adjusts committee assignments after House elections every two years. But those are generally to give freshmen legislators committee spots and promote veterans to vacancies on higher-ranking panels.
White will be a rank-and-file member of the Labor Commerce and Industry Committee. Rep. Bill Sander, R-Seneca, was re-elected Wednesday as chairman of that business legislation panel.
White was chairman of the House Rules Committee. His colleagues elected him budget chief in 2011 after former Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Piedmont, resigned from the House and later became a lobbyist.
White won a 10th term handily in November.
The General Assembly starts its new session Jan. 8.