House spending unnerves Haley

S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley

COLUMBIA — State lawmakers approved $2.5 million in new annual spending for work on the S.C. House’s failing electronic voting and sound systems instead of tapping a rainy day fund stocked with more than twice that amount.

The decision to include the cash in the state budget that went into effect July 1 has Gov. Nikki Haley asking for more veto power.

Haley didn’t veto the pricey electronic work because she said she doesn’t have the authority. The governor said at a Friday press conference announcing her budget strikes that the spending is exactly the kind of item she would have vetoed if she had so-called “blue line” veto power like governors in several other states.

That ability would allow Haley to reduce amounts approved by legislators, rather than being forced to wipe out or leave untouched entire lines of spending, such as the S.C. House budget.

“They have two and a half million more in this year’s budget than they had last year, but we can’t get to it,” Haley said.

Haley’s office also takes issue with the fact that the $2.5 million was listed as recurring, rather than one-time funding.

“Would the Gamecocks or Tigers get away with telling their boosters they need to buy a new scoreboard every year? No,” Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said Monday.

“If they were truly using these funds to fix a voting board, they wouldn’t be using recurring dollars to do so. Let’s stop playing games with taxpayer money and give the governor a blue line veto.”

GOP House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s spokesman directed questions about the spending to House Clerk Charles Reid.

Reid said he wasn’t asked by state budget writers whether the money for sound and electronic voting systems needed to be recurring.

He said he was only asked the maximum amount it would cost to replace both items if they stop working completely.

The House and Senate’s top budget writers — Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, and Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence — could not be reached for clarification Monday.

The House video board — which displays members’ votes and automatically records them into a computer system — and the sound system were first used in 1998 following a four-year renovation of the Statehouse.

Reid said the technology was already obsolete by that time because it was from 1994, when the state bid out the renovation work.

He said that over the last four years, both systems have begun to fail and required patchwork repairs.

“We were told (they) could fail at any time,” Reid said.

Both systems will be inspected this summer, at which time it will be determined if they can be repaired or should be replaced.

Reid said he didn’t want to tap into the House’s $6 million carry-forward, or rainy day fund, for the work because he wants to keep that fund well-stocked in the event of a midyear budget cut or some kind of midyear catastrophe.

He said that when the economic downturn hit in 2008, the House resorted to “extreme” budget-cutting measures, including 10 mandatory furlough days for all staff.

“We’ll be able to handle it if it happens again,” Reid said.

Ashley Landess, executive director of the S.C. Policy Council, a conservative think tank, called the decision “absurd.”

Landess opposes the House’s storing of rainy day money, calling it a “slush fund.”

But she said as long as it exists, the fund should be used to deal with the voting and sound system issues, among other things.

“We can’t afford these rainy-day funds to sit untouched. We’ve had a lot of rainy days,” Landess said.