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.
By Brad Warthen