After $3.5B mistake, SC voters could end the election of state’s top accountant

·3 min read
Javon L. Harris

In the last three weeks, South Carolina lawmakers have voted to slash the salary of the state’s top accountant, filed a proposal to impeach the Republican elected official and recommended his responsibilities be moved to other agencies.

Now, lawmakers want voters in 2024 to decide whether they should still have a say.

South Carolina voters could decide next general election whether the state’s top accountant, called the comptroller general, should continue to be elected or appointed by the governor, with Senate approval.

A South Carolina Senate panel on Tuesday quickly advanced legislation that would let voters decide by ballot referendum the future of the comptroller general’s office, a $151,000-a-year four-year position that acts as the state’s chief accountant and fiscal watchdog. The office runs the state payroll, pays vendors, runs the state accounting system and compiles an annual comprehensive financial report.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate want to strip powers from Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom after he notified legislators in February that his office had miscounted money for 10 years, inflating cash on hand by $3.5 billion.

Eckstrom, a Republican, was first elected comptroller general in 2002 and was last reelected in 2022 after running unopposed.

“I feel very disappointed that it took this to make this change,” said state Sen. Chip Campsen, the lead sponsor of the referendum who has repeatedly proposed moving the office under the governor. “I do think that the executive branch should have important positions that the chief executive gets to choose from one administration to another, because at the end of the day the executive branch needs to work be working in coordination.”

Campsen’s proposal to put the question to the voters, a change in the state Constitution that first requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers, now moves to the full Senate Judiciary Committee. A similar proposal was filed in the House by state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg.

Eckstrom’s decade-long error for years only appeared in the annual comprehensive financial report, which isn’t used by lawmakers when they write the budget, meaning no actual dollars are missing. However, lawmakers said the error could affect South Carolina’s bond rating, which determines how much interest the state pays when it borrows money.

“When you’ve had this kind of failure, I don’t think you would have had that with an appointed comptroller general because the governor’s office would and his staff would be on top of what’s going on in that office,” Campsen said.

Eckstrom said last week in a statement that he supported making his job appointed. Eckstrom did not attend the Tuesday Senate hearing, and no one else testified for or against the measure.

“I have long been an advocate of restructuring state government to make it more responsive to the people,” Eckstrom said.

Senate recommendations, released March 15, for the Comptroller General’s Office include moving office responsibilities to other state agencies and removing Eckstrom from office for willful neglect of duty, another move that would require a two-thirds vote of both chambers and action by the governor.

A separate bill to remove Eckstrom from office for willful neglect of duty has been introduced in the Senate, with 35 co-sponsors. A resolution to impeach Eckstrom was introduced in the House, with 16 co-sponsors.

Campsen said Eckstrom’s actions did not rise to the level of a high crime or misdemeanor needed for impeachment — an effort Gov. Henry McMaster said the General Assembly should resist.

Cobb-Hunter, who proposed letting the governor make the appointment, agreed.

“He was elected just like all of us, and I don’t think it’s fair to be talking about impeaching him because of whatever allegations have been made,” Cobb-Hunter said on the House floor during the March 14 budget debate.

By the numbers

19 states have an office of comptroller general or controller

9 comptrollers or controllers are popularly elected

7 comptrollers or controllers are appointed by a governor

2 comptrollers or controllers are appointed by other state officials.

1 comptroller is appointed by a Legislature.