DOT reform column

Would-be DOT reformers
need to start pulling together

By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
THE GOOD GUYS really need to pull in the same direction if we’re to get anything that even the most easy-going person in the world would call “reform” at the S.C. Department of Transportation.
    That hasn’t been happening:
    Last week, Sen. John Courson proposed an amendment that would simply have done the right thing:Courson
Put this executive agency in the governor’s Cabinet, making it directly accountable, without any frustrating filters or buffers of any kind, to the chief executive elected by the people of our state.
    He proposed “a clean, a very clear, a very simple bill.” It would have fixed the thing that is wrong with DOT — its commission — by doing away with it.
    If you try to run an agency through a group, a committee, a commission, you will once again get what we have: an entity with multiple entry and exit points for decision-making, so that you can’t track how something happened or didn’t happen and do something about it. Lawmakers who want this agency to continue to be their personal candy store are dead set on keeping this structure, preferably appointed by them. They might let the governor appoint the commissioners, as long as he can’t remove them.
    A commission can’t turn efficiently when it’s on a bad course. The inertial center of the General Assembly dreads changing direction more than anything.
    The House, and Senate committees, have tinkered and argued over the best way to continue to keep a commission and make it look like reform.
    Sen. Courson said to forget all that and make the agency accountable. Setzler_2
Twelve senators voted with him: Kevin Bryant, Chip Campsen, Ronnie Cromer, Mike Fair, Larry Grooms, Wes Hayes, Larry Martin, Harvey Peeler, Jim Ritchie, Greg Ryberg, Nikki Setzler and Lewis Vaughn — all Republicans except Sen. Setzler.
    That means the proposal was defeated, 26-13.Hayes

    Sen. Courson says he’ll try again Tuesday. Unless more reform-minded people work with him, the status quo will win.
    Sen. Vincent Sheheen wants reform. He is a sincere advocate of good government who comes from a line of good-government advocates. But he voted against the Courson proposal.
    “I try to approach government in a very pragmatic fashion,” he said. “Not in terms of what would be ideal.” He’s had the chance to observe South Carolina government his whole life, and he knows what an alien concept “ideal” can be to our state’s decision-makers.
    Besides, he’s not convinced that a Cabinet is “ideal.” If you make it too easy to change the agency, he believes it will lose “stability” and professionalism. He envisions a parade of political appointees passing through the director’s job.
    He would keep the commission for continuity’s sake, but let the governor both appoint commissioners and fire them at will.
    I tried to get him to convince me that you can’t have a parade of hacks with a commission, with the added problem of not knowing whose hacks they were, and I’m afraid he didn’t succeed.
    We agreed on one thing, though: “There are a lot of people who’d like to see nothing happen.” There are more of them than there are people like him. In fact, more people voted for the Courson plan than there are people like Vincent Sheheen.
    Patty Pierce lobbies for the Coastal Conservation League, which has taken a lead role in a broad coalition of groups “calling for real reform, including: making the agency accountable to the public, requiring that road projects meet a real public need and making sure that the most important projects are funded first.”
    That’s a lot to try to get at once, so the league and its allies have concentrated more on the public-need-and-priority stuff than on pushing an accountable structure.
    They would keep a commission, but insist on rational procedures for setting road priorities.
These good people have worked hard at this — through the House and Senate committees and now out onto the floor — and they were much taken aback by Sen. Courson.
    “His amendment completely struck the bill that we had been working on for four months,” said Ms. Pierce.
    As one who’s pushed the Cabinet approach for 16 years, I started asking why she thought any priority-setting criteria that they were promised would ever last past next legislative session, and various other cynical questions, so she referred me to Elizabeth Hagood, the league’s director of conservation programs.
    She said it’s less a matter of the four months of work, and more a matter of the coalition having decided early to stay out of the politically divisive issue of who runs the agency, and concentrate instead on how it’s run.
    That seemed a shaky approach to me. If you have the wrong who, you’re much less likely to get the how that you are seeking. Wouldn’t a Cabinet appointee be far more likely actually to implement and stick to a rational set of priority-setting procedures? Isn’t it much easier for good-government types to nag, argue and embarrass a governor into doing the right thing? You can’t embarrass a commission.
    “I understand what you’re saying,” said Ms. Hagood. “Personally, I agree with what you’re saying.”
    Unfortunately, the league’s coalition consists of too many diverse partners who have agreed upon the course they are on: “We’re not set up to change direction in the 11th hour.”
    In other words… dramatic pause here… the league can’t change its direction and support the right plan because it’s run by a commission.
    I rest my case.

17 thoughts on “DOT reform column

  1. Ready to Hurl

    Just as a point of interest, Brad, how do other states run their DOTs?
    Maybe you could suggest a survey to the news side of the house.

  2. Lee

    Making DOT a cabinet position will help reform it only so long as the governor is honest and willing to clean house.
    Unfortunately, that seldom happens when the miscreants are embarassing appointees of a governor.
    Look at the other agencies with heads appointed by the governor, which are just as corrupt as the DOT or more so – for example, the Dept of Revenue.

  3. Brad Warthen

    As we said in today’s lead editorial, 47 states do it the conventional way — with their DOT, like their other executive agencies, reporting to the elected chief executive.

    South Carolina does it in this go-around-your-derriere-to-get-to-your-elbow manner to maximize the influence of lawmakers in using it for pork. With all those points of entry with a commission, it’s easy to mask where the influence is coming from.

  4. chrisw

    I keep saying that our government is broken, and you guys keep laughing at me. But it is…the commission style of government is unworkable…but when you have governors like Sanford that TALK about restructuring and efficiency…but in fact do NOTHING to make those ideas actually work…u end up with an inefficient mess. And when government is a mess the LOBBYIST and insiders make a fortune, and the taxpayers are skinned.
    The State newspaper has abrogated its responsibility by failing to report the “real stories”…and forcing on the unimportant. Wile they only occasionally get the story right (pay day loans as an example)…they usually miss it. And we are the poorer for it.
    One day that Scoppe person will be replaced by a real person…that will not harp constantly on the same story that has been beaten to death…and work on the stories that will engage the public, and enhance our lives.

  5. Rushmore

    You were so busy being right in your column that you erred on two major grounds: first, Sen. Courson’s amendment torpedoed a good bill, and introducing it in the 11th hour, after months of work by Sen. Grooms and the Transportation Committee, was a mistake; and second, conservation groups have been wise to stay out of the debate over DOT’s management restructuring because addressing this issue would place conservation groups right in the middle of the eternal and ridiculous turf war between the Senate and the Governor. Instead, conservation groups laid out five “very clear, very simple” priorities (to borrow from Courson) that would have improved DOT dramatically REGARDLESS of whom is in charge. These priorities fell out of Courson’s amendment because the amendment itself was rashly and poorly conceived. Rather than look into the merits of the original bill, and what Courson’s amendment actually meant, you wasted your time and ours looking for people to agree with your assessment that commissions are dysfunctional and that DOT’s management structure needs to be addressed first. But it was and continues to be political infighting over DOT’s management structure that accounts for the lack of reform. The conservation community was therefore two steps ahead of you in deciding to reform the WAY projects are reviewed and funded, rather than who gets to be in charge (or who gets to decide who’s in charge), which leads us to two more errors in your column: the Coastal Conservation League is not run by a commission, and it most certainly can change direction, just not in support of a bad amendment.

  6. ed

    I agree with chrisw that government in South Carolina is profoundly broken. Can there be any wonder that many citizens have become either cynics or scrooges or both, and chafe at the idea that this monstrosity needs any more tax dollars? Brad and the Darlings on the ed. board continue to preach that we are undertaxed, and yet run stories about the DOT and state employee retirement scams and lucrative buyouts for crooks and thieves. Am I missing something? Memo to Brad: Maybe we’ll be more receptive to your tax mantra when you can begin reporting some “good” things about financial stewardship in state government. Until then, I ain’t really interested. Ed

  7. Brad Warthen

    Courson in fact introduced a second version of his amendment that included all the language that was important to the conservationists. He still didn’t get support.
    But the greater problem is that the coalition STARTED by trading away the one thing that was critical — the structural change. It was never important to them in the slightest, and that is a monumental mistake. It’s the one thing that, in this context, matters most.
    People who are too fixated on policy outcomes — essentially, trying to predetermine certain outcomes at the operational level — are committing a damaging error.
    Here’s the problem with it: Such procedural stuff is very easy to change. This legislature could pass these precepts, the next one could toss them out. By contrast, we have a historic opportunity, thanks to the recent widespread outrage, to change the structure, which means lasting accountability for wise policy in the future. By trying to micromanage future policy through legislation, and being so anxious to do so that it offers up what lawmakers most want — a way to keep the commission — the coalition stands in the way of true reform.
    The coalition is far more likely in the future to get the kinds of policy outcomes it wants from a Cabinet-run agency than from a commission, and is misguided to accept a deal that SEEMS to give it the future policy outcomes it wants in exchange for not messing with the Legislative State.
    The proposal that Courson offered at the “11th hour” is the one plan that has ALWAYS been the right one. The trouble is that none of the outside actors who might bring the pressure to bear to make it happen — the governor, the coalition — have insisted upon it. The governor started out in an accommodationist mode before the legislative session even began, which is uncharacteristic of him, and still inexplicable to me.
    SOMEBODY ought to be out there articulating the right thing to do, so I’m grateful to Courson for doing so when he got the chance, and it would help if others who seek true reform would be a little more flexible and see the opportunity this presents.
    It would be far better for all if we went into conference with ONE of the two plans being based in the right governing structure. That would greatly increase the probability that the compromise that will inevitably result would be a little closer to what is needed.
    Oh, and I like the “Rushmore” sobriquet. I prefer real, full names, but in the absence of that, yours is fairly cool.

  8. bud

    Brad, most of your readers probably think like I do on this issue. We’re mildly interested in reforming the DOT but it’s not of paramount importance. Why? We continue to drive on the roads. We see paving vehicles, maintenance crews and other activity continuing unabated while our gasoline taxes remain among the lowest in the nation. The DOT must be doing something right. It’s true our roads are among the most dangerous in the country and the poor condition of our rural roads plays a minor roll in that. (The interstates are not much more dangerous in SC than in other places). So I’m all for changes that would make the agency more efficient. But to me this just doesn’t have the same urgency that Iraq, energy or education have.

  9. Ready to Hurl

    Methinks that Brad would quickly decide that “Rushmore” was just another “cowardly” way to maintain anonymity if the owner decided to criticize Brad.

  10. Lee

    The other 47 states with DOT as a cabinet appointee of the governor have the same corruption and waste problems that SC does. It is not the panacea that Brad and others want us to believe, because The State’s agenda is to restructure government to their fixation, whether that actually improves honesting and efficiency or not.
    You have to fix the tax system and the procurement system in order to fix any of the other agencies.
    Those two systems are the most corrupt, because they are the ones used by legislators, governors and agencies to bribe voters and pay back for bribes received.

  11. Rushmore

    I guess you and I will have to agree to disagree on this one. Because I sat in on some of the discussions about DOT reform I did not include my name in my post because doing so would jeopardize my sources, and possibly my job. I’m not disagreeing with the substance of Courson’s amendment (we agree there), but it’s timing. Moreover, having read your post I still maintain that you come down unfairly on the conservation community, which did consider weighing in on the larger structural issues but recognized, rightly, that it was in no position, at least publicly, to endorse one plan over another. No one in the Senate would have listened anyway, since each individual Senator considers himself sacrosanct when it comes to deciding such matters. The Senators should have been your primary target and I don’t understand so many of them got a pass in your column.
    Try for a moment to challenge your assumptions: does reform really have to start at the top, or can we implement general (how do you come up with “micromanage”?) policy guidelines that address glaring problems and thereby encourage greater efficiency, no matter how DOT is structured? While DOT’s dysfunctional structure helps account for its breakdown, making it a cabinet-level agency is no guarantor of success. And do such efforts on the part of the conservation community really mean it stands “in the way of true reform,” when the coalition’s work had the effect of generating what little consensus there was on the Senate floor last week? With virtually no help from the media or the Governor, coalition members created consensus around addressing problems that lie at the heart of DOT’s breakdown. You present them as an impediment to positive change.
    Of course the one logical player on issues of DOT’s future structure would have been the Governor, but he has burned so many bridges with the legislature that he stood on the sidelines, either because a) he knew he couldn’t impact the process, or b) he enjoys the one role left to him in statewide politics: criticizing the Legislature. These were so many fourth grade playground schoolboys arguing over the rules to a game; to spend the majority of your column blaming the conservation community for trying to “micromanage future policy,” or standing in the way of “true reform,” simply misses the boat.

  12. Ready to Hurl

    Brad, I’ve never noticed you differentiating between “cowardly” anonymous posters who’re insulting and “non-cowardly” posters who aren’t.
    Until now.

  13. P

    Why do you assume that everything in the legislative audit is correct? What investigation did The State do to see that is was correct? What was the real purpose of the legislative audit? Who stood to gain? Who stood to lose? Why is The State so timid about investigating the audit?

  14. Vince Graham

    Reform efforts regrettably ignore the fundamental political principle of Subsidiarity: government works best, most responsively, and responsibly – when it is closes to the people it serves and needs it addresses.
    SC is one of the few states in the country where the state DOT controls most of the roads (in our case more than 90%). Most states have well developed county and municipal public works departments that are responsible for local roads.
    REAL reform would work to flatten our top-down structure and shift road ownership and maintenance to counties and cities.

  15. Lee

    There used to be County Road Commissions, but the phony reforms of liberals in the late 1960s and early 1970s pulled a lot of power and money away from counties and into the cental hands of state agencies, which the legislature could control through crony appointments.

  16. P

    “phony reforms of liberals”?
    Excuse me, but when have liberals EVER held power in this state? What a joke! We have “the right” and “the far right” in this state, but no liberals. You certainly have a good sense of humor! Hey, why not blame Bill Clinton! That always works in South Carolina! It is probably his fault!
    The bigger joke is that the Governor decided to resurrect the restructure agenda by attacking . . . the South Carolina DOT. NOT the DOT Commission. The governor did not think to attack the DOT Commission. Instead, he attacked the Executive Director. That gave the Commission the perfect scapegoat: “It is not us, it is the Executive Director!” So, aided by The State newspaper and its non-investigative journalists, the attack went as planned against the Executive Director. And the Commission was off the hook. Good job, governor! You made it easy for the Commission to point a finger at the Executive Director and offer her up as a public sacrifice.
    Oh yes, the attack also came at an inopportune time. The South Carolina DOT has been winning well-deserved awards and solving the state’s transportation problems. So the governor had to create some scandal, and set up a phony audit that did a sad hack job. The so-called “audit” is on par with The State’s editorial page. That is to say, it is sloppy jounalism and not even an audit.
    Thanks to The State newspaper, no one investigated the audit — after all, it served the interest of The State newspaper’s editorial position.
    So, here we are. The Commission got its scapegoat, the governor got his issue, The State got its story. And the citizens got no reform. Big surprise! Business as usual. Probably Bill Clinton is behind the whole thing.


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