If they won’t reform DOT, what WILL they reform?

By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
ABANDON hope, all ye who seek common-sense reform from the S.C. General Assembly.
    You think maybe they’d raise the state’s cigarette tax, the lowest in the nation at 7 cents a pack, especially considering that more than 70 percent of poll respondents say do it?
    You’re not from around here, are you?
    So how about this ridiculous business of the voters having to elect all these functionaries whom most of them couldn’t name if their lives depended on it? The indictments (and in one case, guilty plea) of two of these poorly vetted politicos over the last couple of years should make changing this situation a no-brainer, right? Or how about putting some of these agencies run by virtually autonomous boards under someone who is elected?
    Dream on, Pollyanna.
    I’ll confess that I dared to dream thus, just a few short months ago. It looked like this was the year for reforming at least one chunk of our fragmented, unaccountable state government.
    For 15 years, this editorial board had been saying we should follow the advice of every commission, study or casual observation of our system by anyone who was not vested in the status quo: Put the elected chief executive in charge of the executive branch, and have the Legislature tend to legislating.
    But not since the partial restructuring of 1993 that was pushed by a very determined governor dealing with a scandal-weakened Legislature had the idea made headway against the host of insiders who make it their business to resist change.
    Then at the end of 2006, we were faced with something that was not a civics-textbook abstraction: A critical mass of voters understood that the state Department of Transportation was a mess, and that the way things were, no one could hold it accountable for its sins.
    The director answered to the Transportation Commission, and the commissioners did not clearly answer to anyone. They were elected by lawmakers, which is bad enough — when you owe your job to 170 people, who’s accountable? No one. The flow chart was further sliced, diced and scrambled by having each commissioner elected by a different subset of lawmakers — those who represented a particular congressional district (and we all know how crazily those are gerrymandered).
    But couldn’t a conscientious director with a clear vision for setting and sticking to rational statewide road-building priorities rise above all the horse-trading parochialism inherent in such a system? Theoretically?
    Sure. But in the real world, a legislative audit of just a third of the agency’s spending found tens of millions of dollars wasted on questionable contracts. It found high-level nepotism and cronyism. It found that the agency had manipulated the books in order to deceive the Legislature.
    Some lawmakers had tried to stick up for the agency’s director, but that was an untenable position. She resigned. Some lawmakers then said: Behold! The problem is solved! She’s gone!
    But that didn’t work, either. So there was much rumbling about bringing this maverick agency into line for once.
    Even better, a governor who had first been elected on a government-restructuring platform had just been re-elected promising that this time (unlike the first four years), he was actually going to get the job done.
    For the first time in years, there was reason to hope that most autonomous, least accountable of agencies would be turned over to the governor, one person whom all the state’s voters could hold responsible for its performance. Lawmakers were in no position to defend the status quo this time, not if the governor really pushed them on it. For once, he had the leverage.
    But he didn’t push them on it. The man who was legendary in his first term for ticking off legislators with his capricious ideological rigidity decided that in this situation — with all the political and moral force clearly on his side for once — he would meet lawmakers halfway before the dickering even started.
    And halfway, with a Legislature that collectively didn’t really want to change anything, is a long way to go — especially when the lawmakers are constantly backing away from you.
    He said, just give me a director I can hire and fire, and you can keep your governing commission. Just please have the commissioners elected by the whole Legislature, so that there’s a chance that they’ll consider broader priorities.
    The short explanation of what happened over the next six months was that lawmakers nodded and backed away, nodded and backed away, until we ended up with this: The governor will be able to hire and fire a director, and can even call that individual a secretary, just like in a sure-enough Cabinet.
    But the governing board will still be picked by lawmakers broken up into congressional districts, keeping the agency firmly grounded in down-home back-scratching.
    Speaking of the commissioners, what were they doing during all this backing and shuffling? Lying low? No way; not these boys. They were electing one of their former brethren to replace the “disgraced” director who had left with a sweet severance package, and openly lobbying lawmakers not to change the setup.
    The Legislature doesn’t come back for six months. That’s plenty of time for us starry-eyed types who want to see our beloved South Carolina get its act together to get over our disappointments and start hoping for positive change again. But today, with the next chance for action so far off and fiasco so recent, I thank you for indulging me in this sad consideration of the way things actually are around here.

8 thoughts on “If they won’t reform DOT, what WILL they reform?

  1. LexWolf

    Yet with such an utterly dysfunctional system you persist in your big-government ideology, unfailingly advocating for ever more taxes and more spending. If the DOT were a car and the various players in this fiasco were the drivers, the car would have plunged into a ditch a long time ago but all you can think of is how to put more gas into the car. Pitiful!
    Pollyanna is thy name, Brad!

  2. mark g

    The first reform needed: The General Assembly needs much shorter sessions. Why?
    Six months is just far too long. Many states far larger than SC can complete legislative business in less than half that time. What would the benefit be?
    It would attract a better caliber legislator. Men and women who are leaders and highly successful in their fields might be able to take two or three months to serve their state, whereas they could never take six months off.
    A higher caliber legislator would be more likely to adopt common-sense reform. There is no single reform that would have a greater impact on our state.
    There are certainly some smart, honorable legislators in office. But with the current, arduous six-month session, there are more than enough ill-informed, self-centered bozos to mire any serious progress.

  3. bud

    Just a reminder to everybody. The State Newspaper, including Brad, pushed hard for re-structuring in the early 90s. Their efforts were successful. Yes, that’s right, Brad’s efforts were SUCCESSFUL. The result was the creation of 3 agencies (DOT, DPS and DMV) where 1 (The South Carolina Department of Highways and Public Transportation) had existed before. The number of employees skyrocketed after this “reform”. Yet there were fewer front line employees (highway maintenance workers, DMV counter help and Patrol Troopers). Who were these new employees? We had more managers, more IT people, more accounting employees, more procurement folks. And on and on.
    DPS was a scandal ridden mess operating out of a leased trailer park for the first 6-7 years of it’s existence.
    The DMV took many years to implement upgrades to it’s system. (The Lt. Gov really had very little to do with the upgrades. They were in the development process long before Andre came into power. Because of the restructuring costs and disruption the DMV simply did not have the funds to implement the changes. The waits grew very long. Once funding was finally available the result was an improvement over what the restructuring mess created in the first place.)
    Our highways are now the most dangerous in the southeast. Only Montana and South Dakota have lower death rates. We now envy the safey record of Mississippi. (In the early 90s we were approaching the national average in our mileage death rate).
    I would suggest to all readers of the State and the Brad Blog that they ignore the rantings of these folks when it comes to government reform. If they succeed again, it will only result in more inefficiency, higher taxes and poor(er) service. Just review the record. History shows this to be the case.

  4. Brad Warthen

    Actually, just to set the record perfectly straight, I’d say, "The State newspaper, especially Brad Warthen, pushed hard for restructuring in the early ’90s." We’re still pushing.

    But to say we were successful is a stretch. Here’s what I had to say at the time about what the Legislature passed in 1993:

    Published on: 06/20/1993
    Section: IMPACT
    Edition: FINAL
    Page: 6D
    BRAD WARTHEN. Warthen was editor of the Power Failure series
        In 1992, South Carolina missed the chance of a century.
        The people of the state almost got to vote, straight up or down, on whether to replace a 300-year-old form of government designed by a narrow elite to keep the rest of us down — and which had done that one job shockingly well.
        The state Senate made sure the issue of creating a modern Cabinet government never made it to the ballot.
        This year, reformers in the House somehow found the will and determination to try again. They came up with a plan that in some respects was as good as the one nearly offered to the voters the first time.
        But it still had to pass the Senate. So what we got was a compromise.
        The Legislature did for a third of the state’s agencies what should have been done for all of them. Some of the areas left out — such as the administration of schools and universities, and the scandal hatchery called the highway department — are astounding in light of the many ways those agencies have failed.
        And nothing has been done to loosen the Legislature’s iron grip on the judicial branch.
        Compromise, we are often told, is the great glory of legislative government. There is no solution so mild that a lawmaker can’t water it down and make it less effective.
        In this case, you could look upon South Carolina as a pneumonia patient. Every physician consulted has prescribed 300 milligrams of antibiotics, but the Legislature has said, "Give her 100, and let’s call her cured."
        In 1991, The State spent most of the year explaining in great detail why government doesn’t work in South Carolina. There was a lot to explain. It took nearly 150 articles, spread over 17 installments. The effort was called "Power Failure: The government that answers to no one."
        Power Failure reflected the best thoughts of a myriad of past and present South Carolina officeholders, political scientists, consultants and citizens of all stripes — people who knew how the state’s government had failed its people.
        It ended with a set of resolutions, based on all that collected wisdom. There was nothing startling about them. With regard to the executive branch of government, the recommendation was simple and matched the conclusion of eight independent studies conducted since 1920 — to gather the 145 separate and independent agencies together and make them accountable to someone elected by all the state’s people, the governor.
        By the standards of the Power Failure resolutions, the restructuring of 1993 falls far short. It reduced fragmentation somewhat, but ultimately failed to drastically simplify government.
        But by the standards of the South Carolina Legislature, it is a stunning achievement.
        The idea guiding Power Failure was always to connect government clearly and directly for the first time to its sole legitimate power source — the people — enabling voters to express at the ballot box which way they want government to go, and creating a structure that would make it possible for government to get itself together and go that way.
        Portions of government are now hitched more closely to the public will. And while it’s far from what is needed, more progress has been made in that direction in these past few months than in the past century. There’s a lot left to do, but reason to believe it will get done. The spirit of reform is now abroad in the land.
        Another reason to hope is a fact that is often easy to forget: that there are thousands of fine, dedicated public servants in state government, who daily do their best by their fellow citizens, and some of them are in the Legislature itself.
        The problem is and always has been that the hoary political culture of this state, and the organizational structure that both reflects and supports it, frustrates the best efforts of these good people.
        That culture is not without its champions, and although they are not all in the Senate, their battle cry was expressed well on a bumper sticker that made its appearance when the House sent its restructuring plan across the lobby this year: "The Senate . . . Now More Than Ever!"
        That slogan might seem rather nonsensical, but it comes into sharper focus if you read what political scientist V.O. Key wrote about some South Carolina senators in 1949:
        "In legislation they adhere generally to a conservative policy, yielding a bit here and there, as may be strategically necessary, to the forces demanding change. They are keenly conscious of their role in defense of the status quo and equally aware that they are fighting a delaying action."
        Within a generation after Key wrote those words, the ability of a small group of senators to rule this state through an informal network of personal connections (the basic principle underpinning what is called the Legislative State) had seriously eroded.
        The first, small steps toward dismantling the Legislative State were taken in the 1970s.  The forces Key described resisted, of course. In the 1990s, they’ve resisted the first efforts to create something to replace the Legislative State.
        But they’re fighting a rear-guard action.
        The restructuring of 1993 has shown that fundamental, constructive change is possible in South Carolina, despite what has so often been said about our state.
        And this is only the beginning.

    What an optimist I was, huh? "Only the beginning." If only I’d known that 14 years later, we’d still be waiting for a next step…

    Anyway, bud, I hope you’ll note that I singled out the highway department as one of the agencies that was NOT reformed, and one of the ones that most should have been. Yeah, they did some shuffling around to try to fool people into thinking they had reformed it. But they had not, and I was just as clear about that in 1993 as I am today.

    Just as a reminder to everybody.

  5. ed

    Mark G, I agree completely with you. I said in an earlier post in this forum that I wished our legislature would cut back to meeting just every other year, like the Texas legislature. And since our legislators seem to cram about three hours worth of work into each annual session, there really should be no problem. Just think, half as much Jake E. Knots. Half as much Gilda Cobb-Hunter. Half as much John Land! Man oh MAN! We have a guy where I work who, whenever he shows up, it’s like we LOST about two people. You know the kind of guy I mean? Well, this is just the kind of impact our legislators have. I think we’d see a significant bump in the states’ economy and general productiveness if we could only cut the idiocy of these boneheads in half. Ed

  6. bud

    Anyway, bud, I hope you’ll note that I singled out the highway department as one of the agencies that was NOT reformed.
    Brad, you are so ignorant on this restructering issue it is simpling amazing. I know first hand about the changes made in 1993. The “highway department” as you describe it was THE most “reformed” agency. Two-thirds of the thing was stripped away to create 2 brand new agencies. One of those agencies, Public Safety, was unbelievably corrupt. Cronism was far worse than at the current DOT. I know, I was there. Trooper strength was dramatically cut. Money was wasted on expensive Italian shotguns because the agency director thought they were so cool, even though they were priced twice as expensive as an American Remington model. And DPS was a semi-cabinet agency. According to your theory it should have been a model of efficiency and accountability. Yet we operated out of smelly, energy-wasting, leased trailer park. You and your paper ignored the incredible problems with DPS. We were even shut down by SLED one day because of financial irregularities. But because DPS was a CABINET agency you chose to ignore the problems. Because in your small ignorant world you were certain that a CABINET form of government could do no wrong. It would solve all problems. And when those problems began to mount, you simply turned a blind eye. That was journalistic failure on a grand scale.
    So don’t tell me the “highway department” was unaffected by the 1993 restructuring legislation. That’s just a plain, bald-faced lie.

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