Jan. 24--COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The S.C. Legislature decided state workers would not pay more for their health insurance this year. Then, the State Budget and Control Board, led by Gov. Nikki Haley, said they would.
"So, who has the power?" state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal asked Wednesday.
The answer, at least today, is the state Supreme Court, which Wednesday heard arguments in a lawsuit brought by state workers trying to overturn the Budget and Control Board decision that increased their insurance costs.
The court's decision will affect taxpayers and state workers.
For taxpayers, the court will decide if they will spend $50.6 million or $44.9 million to pay the cost of health insurance for state and local public-sector workers this year. For 235,000 workers, the court will decide if they pay an extra $7.33 a month or have no increase in their health insurance premiums.
But the court's decision could have a much larger impact on how lawmakers approve state spending and how state officials carry out those orders.
The dispute is over what, exactly, the Legislature intended when it approved spending $50.6 million to pay the cost of state workers' higher health insurance premiums. Attorneys for Gov. Nikki Haley argued, just because the Legislature approves spending a certain amount of money, that does not mean state officials have to spend all of it. By forcing state workers to share in the cost of their increased health costs -- as the budget board did -- state officials did not spend all of the $50.6 million that lawmakers appropriated, saving about $5 million.
If lawmakers had intended for the state to spend all of that money on health insurance premiums, they would have passed an accompanying law -- called a budget proviso -- that would have specified that, Haley's lawyers argued.
"No one is advocating that this $5 million that wasn't spent goes somewhere else," attorney Mitch Brown argued before the court. "That would not be legal."
But Toal said she worried about the "broad scale" of that idea. The state budget includes hundreds of millions of dollars that do not have accompanying laws that direct how that money should be spent.
"There are lease payments and outside-vendor payments and payments to school districts and all manner of things where the amount of money is specified, but there are no other provisos that say, 'You've got to spend it in this particular way,' " Toal said.
Associate Justice John Kittredge said, "The issue here is not whether the money is going to be spent ... it is the purpose."
But the justices also questioned why the Legislature was not more specific.
"That is always a little frustrating to us about these ... cases, we many times do not get clear guidance from the Legislature," Chief Justice Toal said. "Here it would have been so easy to put a proviso to that particular line item that specifies. ... They did not do that."
But lawmakers did leave "footprints in the sand," said Al Nickles, the attorney for the S.C. Employees Association and the S.C. Education Association, two of the groups that filed the lawsuit. Those "footprints" include state officials calculating the state would need to pay $50.6 million to cover 100 percent of the health insurance increase -- the amount lawmakers approved spending.
"I don't think the General Assembly has confused this court," he said.
The court should make its decision in the coming weeks. State workers were supposed to start paying more for their insurance on Jan. 1, according to the budget board. But the court suspended that hike until after the court made its decision
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.
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