COLUMBIA - South Carolina has a new top accountant after a 20-year officeholder resigned amid pressure over a $3.5 billion reporting error.
Brian Gaines will oversee a comptroller general's office that has received mounting scrutiny from lawmakers who want to dismantle its responsibilities.
Gov. Henry McMaster, who had said he wanted someone removed from "politics," touted Gaines' widespread respect at a Friday press conference announcing the appointment. Gaines' 16-year state government career most recently featured a tenure as director for the South Carolina Department of Administration's Executive Budget Office.
"His expertise on the budgeting process and experience in state government will allow him to provide a fresh perspective to the Comptroller General's Office while at the same time allowing for a smooth transition," McMaster said Friday in a statement.
The shakeup comes after former Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom revealed the state's Annual Comprehensive Financial Report had exaggerated cash balances by double counting the money sent to colleges and universities.
The fallout came swiftly. The $3.5 billion error did not impact the state budget, but a Senate panel's investigation found that Eckstrom ignored auditors' yearslong warnings of a "material weakness" around cash reporting.
Eckstrom rejected the findings but announced March 23 he would resign - a move that came as senators garnered the votes necessary to oust him. Lawmakers had begun advancing legislation to let voters decide whether the position would remain an elected official or become a governor-appointed title. The House even voted to cut the annual salary to $1 during a budget debate.
But lawmakers never held a joint assembly to select a replacement. The move gave McMaster the power to tab the next officeholder as soon as the legislative session ended on Thursday.
Gaines committed Friday to carrying out the duties until the General Assembly selects someone new or the term ends in 2027. Republican Sen. Larry Grooms, who spearheaded the investigation, called him "an excellent choice" in a Friday statement.
The General Assembly also declined to pass a sine die resolution dictating the end of the regular session and any issues it might return to address later this year.
Without the resolution, and with a number of GOP priorities left on the table, the governor Friday formally called lawmakers back for an extra legislative session. No South Carolina governor has reconvened the General Assembly for a special session since 2002.
Lawmakers can do whatever they please during the legislative overtime beginning Tuesday, May 16. But the very decision to wrap work without the sine die resolution signals a strong relationship between legislative leaders and the governor.
McMaster repeated calls Friday for lawmakers to pass enhanced penalties for convicted felons who possess guns, limits to bond and new abortion restrictions. The state budget also has yet to be finalized.
McMaster said the widely expected move had been discussed with members of both the House and Senate.
"We knew there were loggerheads on a number of important issues and that they were running out of time. I wish they'd finished their work," McMaster said Friday, adding: "They didn't get there this time."
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