Roll Call Voting Up to Senate – Again

Contributed by Eric K. Ward of The Nerve

It’s déjà vu all over again regarding members of the General Assembly voting on the record.

Or is it?

Just like last year, the S.C. House has passed a roll call voting bill in a rare unanimous vote. Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, is chief sponsor of the bill, H. 3004.

And, also like last year, that measure now heads to the Senate, where its prospects are not necessarily as bright but could be better than in 2010, when roll call voting legislation died in the upper chamber.

Last week, the day after Gov. Nikki Haley took office, the House acted swiftly on Ballentine’s bill, bypassing the committee process to approve it with no dissenting votes.

In her third and final term as a state representative last year, Haley started championing roll call voting after The Nerve’s parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council, had released studies showing that the Palmetto State is one of the worst in the nation for lawmakers voting on the record.

The vast majority of the time, the Policy Council documented, S.C. legislators cast voice votes. That makes it virtually impossible to know how individual lawmakers voted in those cases.

Change could be afoot, though. The big question is, what will the Senate do on roll call voting this year?

Potential outcomes appear to be a mixed bag.

The day after the Legislature reconvened last Tuesday, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, succeeded in getting a resolution through the committee that he says would accomplish most of the aims of the House bill.

Martin sponsored the resolution, S. 9, and he told The Nerve in a follow-up interview that it is one of the Senate’s top priorities this week. In fact, he said the chamber could take up the resolution today. “And I fully expect that will pass,” Martin said.

But because of Senate procedure, S. 9 would not go as far as the House bill. In addition, Martin’s resolution would apply only to the Senate, while the Ballentine legislation would apply to both chambers if it becomes law.

Moreover, neither the bill nor the resolution is likely to put the roll call voting issue to rest.

Most important legislative measures receive three votes, or readings, in both the House and Senate. The second vote is the crucial one because that’s when debate occurs; first and third readings typically are perfunctory.

Ballentine’s bill, the “Spending Accountability Act of 2011,” would require both chambers to vote on the annual state budget section by section, instead of as a whole document, on second reading. And the bill would mandate roll call votes for:

  • Adoption of each section of the budget;
  • Second votes on bills and joint resolutions, or resolutions that both the House and Senate consider;
  • Adoption of one chamber’s amendment by the other chamber;
  • Final reading of an amended bill or joint resolution; and
  • Adoption of conference reports, or compromise versions of similar but varying bills that both chambers have passed.

Martin’s resolution includes most of those provisions. But the Senate Rules Committee amended it last week so as not to require the Senate to take roll call votes on each section of the budget.

The House adopts the budget section by section. But the Senate does not, instead taking up and amending the spending plan as a whole.

As a result, Martin told The Nerve regarding the piece-by-piece roll call vote requirement, “That poses a procedural problem for us,”

The Ballentine bill mirrors the roll call voting legislation the House passed last year. Haley sponsored that bill.

But it subsequently ran into a quagmire in the Senate at the hands of the president pro tempore of the chamber, Republican Sen. Glenn McConnell of Charleston, and other Senate leaders.

A staunch defender of senatorial procedure, McConnell presides over the Senate most of the time it is in session.

In opposing Haley’s bill last year, McConnell argued that it ran afoul of language in the S.C. Constitution giving the House and Senate the authority to establish their own operating rules.

A member of the rules committee, McConnell sounded a similar theme last week. “Let me explain again why you have to be careful about writing rules,” he said in a stern, lecturing tone, “because the procedure in the Senate is different from the procedure in the House.”

Because of the rules issue, Martin is taking a three-pronged approach to pushing for roll call voting.

In addition to his rules resolution, Martin is sponsoring companion legislation to the Ballentine bill, S. 7. But the senator says a statute could only go so far. “The problem is a future House or Senate can disregard it by rule.”

Thus Martin’s third prong: a proposed constitutional amendment, S. 8. “I support doing it all three ways,” he says.

For Haley, the fate of roll call voting this year will be a big test of her ability to work with the Senate and the General Assembly as a whole.

So what does the new governor think of the Legislature’s actions on the issue thus far in the session?

“We appreciate the important first steps the House and Senate took this week toward making sure legislators vote on the record and look forward to working with them to make it permanent law,” Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said in an e-mail.

Some observers, meanwhile, have raised cost questions about roll call voting.

“The Legislature indicates that, at a minimum, there would be additional printing cost for daily and permanent Journals,” says a fiscal impact statement on the Ballentine bill. “The House estimates additional cost per roll call vote at between $30 and $35.”

The House and Senate Journals record what happens in the respective chambers. The Office of State Budget drafted the revenue impact statement.

Although roll call voting could generate higher legislative printing costs, transparency and taxpayer advocates alike argue that any such increased expenses would be dwarfed by savings that would result from lawmakers being held more accountable for their votes.

Toward that end, Policy Council President Ashley Landess says the public must keep the pressure on for roll calling voting.

The Policy Council, a nonprofit free-market think tank in Columbia, is widely credited with sparking a roll calling voting movement in South Carolina, stemming from the organization’s reports on the Legislature’s dearth of on-the-record voting.

“The public won a victory in the battle of wills between the nation’s most controlling legislature and one of its most independent citizenries when the House unanimously passed one of the nation’s strongest legislative voting transparency laws, Landess says of the Ballentine bill.

“If the Senate does the same, South Carolina will actually move from ‘worst to first’ in one category of government accountability. We aren’t there yet – unfortunately, some Senate leaders have fought a substantive law to require recorded votes, so the public will have to pay close attention.”

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.

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