COLUMBIA — Lawmakers who want to overhaul state government and give South Carolina’s governor more control of bureaucratic functions will try again in the legislative session that starts today.
But many legislators say the hacking last fall of millions of taxpayers’ personal information from an agency Gov. Nikki Haley controls hurts arguments to give her office more responsibilities. Other lawmakers argue that the debacle at the Department of Revenue strengthens arguments for the additional oversight called for in the bill.
Proposals to abolish the Budget and Control Board and transfer many of its duties to a newly created Department of Administration died repeatedly under former Gov. Mark Sanford, whose contentious relationship with legislators made a deal difficult.
Haley then made it her administration’s signature issue. A law enabling Haley to claim victory came close to passing in June but died in the Senate as the session ended without a vote.
“I still believe it’s highly improbable to transfer a lot of additional responsibilities and duties to the governor’s office, no matter who’s the governor,” said House Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-St. Matthews. “I see no reason why I or any other member of the General Assembly would rush to give the governor any new power when they haven’t demonstrated a good use of the power they already have.”
A hacker exposed millions of residents and businesses to identity theft in September largely because the Revenue Department did not encrypt personal data including Social Security and bank account numbers and failed to block access to them with layers of security. It took notification weeks later from the U.S. Secret Service for state officials to even realize taxpayers’ data had been compromised.
Even supporters of government restructuring say that effort has been hurt by the nation’s largest hacking of a state agency.
“The problems we’ve had with agencies have been with Cabinet agencies,” said Senate President Pro Tem John Courson, R-Columbia. “I’ve been in favor of the chief executive having more powers in state government. I still support it, but what transpired hurt it.”
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler said the hacking debacle will likely come up in government restructuring debates, but it should not affect the outcome. The executive functions of government should be under the governor, period, said Peeler, R-Gaffney.
Advocates want to break up the little-understood Budget and Control Board and bring an end to the powerful, five-member board of politicians that oversees the agency. Bureaucratic duties such as property and fleet management, janitorial services, and computer technology would be in the new Cabinet agency.
Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said the Republican governor looks forward to working with reform-minded legislators to finally make a Department of Administration a reality and give residents “the kind of efficient and accountable government they want and deserve.”
The proposal must start anew this year. The effort is being led in the Senate by Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen – who’s sponsored the idea for a decade – and Republican Sen. Shane Massey. Their bill is set for debate Thursday in a judiciary subcommittee that Massey chairs.
Arguably the most important part of the bill, say Sheheen and Massey, is that it requires the legislature to have more oversight of state agencies, by requiring hearings and periodic reviews.
“Most of the time, we don’t know what’s going on in a lot of government,” said Massey, R-Edgefield. “Usually, when we do oversight, it’s in response to a scandal or natural disaster.”
Massey was among senators railing against Cabinet agencies that blew through their budgets under Sanford and were bailed out by the Budget and Control Board, which the governor chairs. When Haley took office in January 2011, three Cabinet agencies were projecting deficits totaling $265 million.
“I realized we didn’t have a clue what was going on in” those agencies, Massey said. “It will require much more work in requiring more oversight. It probably will require more staff, but it’s vital for legislators to know what’s going on to provide checks and balances.”