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Senators want governor to name comptroller after $3.5B error

South Carolina Sen. Chip Campsen speaks in Columbia, S.C., Tuesday, March 21, 2023. Campsen supported a constitutional amendment approved Tuesday by a Senate subcommittee to let the governor appoint the state's comptroller general. (AP Photo/James Pollard)
James Pollard/AP
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AP
South Carolina Sen. Chip Campsen speaks in Columbia, S.C., Tuesday, March 21, 2023. Campsen supported a constitutional amendment approved Tuesday by a Senate subcommittee to let the governor appoint the state's comptroller general. (AP Photo/James Pollard)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The legislative fallout over a $3.5 billion accounting blunder by South Carolina's comptroller general took a new turn Tuesday as lawmakers moved to make his job a gubernatorial appointment instead of an elected position.

A Senate subcommittee unanimously advanced a constitutional amendment allowing the governor to nominate the official for Senate approval. Currently, South Carolina is one of only nine states where voters elect the chief accountant, said sponsor and state Sen. Chip Campsen.

Campsen filed the same legislation in previous years without results. But Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom's revelation last month that he had overstated the state's cash position by $3.5 billion has provided likely impetus for its support.

Campsen, a lawmaker from the Isle of Palms, said he believes the amendment will allow better oversight and prevent similar failures going forward. Still, he said he doesn't feel vindicated.

“I feel very disappointed that it took this to make this change," he said.

He added that the governor's office "should have important positions that the chief executive gets to choose during the transition from one administration to the other."

Campsen expressed confidence that the constitutional amendment would receive the two-thirds vote necessary in both chambers to put it on the ballot in the next general election. The majority of voters would then have to approve the change.

Tuesday’s move is one of several recommendations suggested in last week’s damning report by a Senate panel investigating the error. It is also a change supported by Eckstrom, who has held the post for the past 20 years. But he has resisted senators’ demands that he quit or be fired.

A separate resolution introduced Thursday seeks a two-thirds vote from the House and Senate to trigger a constitutional provision requiring the governor to remove Eckstrom for “willful neglect of duty.”

Senators concluded that Eckstrom failed to properly do his job. The comptroller general’s oversight of the annual comprehensive financial report includes determining which cash expenditures to include or exclude. The process, known as “mapping,” grew complex as Eckstrom’s office gradually shifted to a new statewide information system between 2011 and 2017.

Department of Administration Executive Director Marcia Adams said Eckstrom incorrectly mapped the money the state sent to higher education in a mistake amounting to “human error” but not “negligence.”

The error also had no effect on the actual budget, state officials testified before the investigative committee.

But State Auditor George Kennedy said Eckstrom did not respond for years to repeated warnings that a “material weakness” existed in his office, which he said lacked sufficient controls to ensure the year-end report’s accuracy.

Whether the misstatement damaged the state’s credit score remains to be seen.

In addition to voting on the constitutional amendment, the Senate subcommittee agreed that other limits on the comptroller general’s authority would be necessary. Members endorsed removing the comptroller general from the list of executive branch officials who may vote to remove a governor for disabilities.

“We only want elected officials to be able to do that,” Campsen said.

The subcommittee members also said the comptroller general should no longer be allowed to levy a statewide property tax in the event that South Carolina defaults on its debt. While Campsen doubted South Carolina would face that scenario, he said the governor should be the one to make the call.

Previous attempts to give the governor more control over state jobs have had mixed results.

In 2018, voters overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the governor to appoint the education superintendent. In 2012, voters approved a constitutional amendment letting gubernatorial candidates pick a lieutenant governor to run on the same ticket. Voters had previously elected the lieutenant governor separately.

Competition for the comptroller's position has been scarce. Eckstrom ran unopposed in the past two elections and last faced a Republican primary challenger in 2010.

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James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.