What I wrote about SPDs in 1991

Things don’t change in South Carolina; they just don’t. If you doubt me, read this piece I wrote in 1991. It was in connection with the 13th installment of the Power Failure project that I directed that year, when I was still in The State‘s newsroom. I quoted from it in my Sunday column.

For those of you who don’t remember, I spent that whole year (except for brief stints when I pulled away to help with our national desk with coverage of the Gulf War and the Soviet coup) running this project that delved very deeply into the fundamental, structural problems with government on the state and local levels in South Carolina. Before that, I had been The State’s governmental affairs editor. After, I took on other, temporary editing assignments as I awaited my chance to join the editorial board. Power Failure had pretty much ruined me for news work.

The piece I refer you to was a little invention of mine that I called the "thread." After the first installment or so of the series (there were 17), I realized that each installment threw an awful lot at people. I wanted to make sure that there was some consistent feature, from installment to installment, that linked that day’s installment with all the previous ones, making sure readers saw the themes that ran through them all. The threads were very short columns by me — about 11 inches long — that essentially answered the questions, What do I need to get out of this installment? How is it related to the rest of the series?

Anyway, I call your attention in particular to this passage. As I noted in my Sunday column, we always have to deal with supporters of SPDs acting like we’re after them personally when we criticized the continued existence of these anachronistic little governments. One of their favorite defenses is to cite the fine work they do providing needed services — as though the same services couldn’t be provided under more sensible governing arrangements. And yet, from the very start, I had anticipated and moved past such objections on their part:

Now before we go further, let’s get one thing straight: There are no bad guys here. Or rather, there might be a few bad guys here and there, but they’re not the problem.

There’s nothing sinister about special-purpose districts per se. They were all established with good intentions. They were set up to provide essential services to people who otherwise would have had to do without. Generally, they continue to perform those services.

The problem is that many — although not all — of them have outlived their usefulness, and their very existence means that government on the local level is more fragmented and less accountable than necessary.

That ran in our paper on Oct. 10, 1991.

Come to think of it, I’ll just make this easy for you and reproduce the whole "thread" for that day here, in case you’re at all interested:

Published on: 10/20/1991
Section: IMPACT
Edition: FINAL
Page: 1D
By Brad Warthen
Memo: POWER FAILURE: The Government That Answers to No One Thirteenth in a series

Do we really need this much government?
    Apart from the mess at the state level — such as an executive branch split into 133 completely independent entities — South Carolina has 46 counties, 271 towns and 91 school districts.
    And about 500 special-purpose districts.
    Maybe we do need this much government. But do we need this many governments, separate and frequently competing?
    Now before we go further, let’s get one thing straight: There are no bad guys here. Or rather, there might be a few bad guys here and there, but they’re not the problem.
    There’s nothing sinister about special-purpose districts per se. They were all established with good intentions. They were set up to provide essential services to people who otherwise would have had to do without. Generally, they continue to perform those services.
    The problem is that many — although not all — of them have outlived their usefulness, and their very existence means that government on the local level is more fragmented and less accountable than necessary.
    These districts are part of the legacy of the Legislative State, and point to some key characteristics of that odd system:

  • Legislative dominance. Until "Home Rule" was passed in 1975, only legislators had the power to solve local problems, such as providing services to unincorporated areas. Rather than empower local governments, legislators did what they always did — set up separate entities that drew their power from the lawmakers, not from voters.
  • Our rural past. Once, most people lived in the country. Now, most people live in or around towns. In many areas, more conventional elected local governments can provide the services SPDs provide — if allowed to. Special- purpose districts deny the urban present and affirm the rural past, as does legislative government itself.
  • That "personal" touch. Government by personal political connection is a hallmark of the Legislative State, and it finds expression here. Individual legislators protect and support special-purpose districts, and those interested in preserving the districts support the legislators.

    The bottom line is that, on the local level as well as on the state, policymaking and service delivery are fragmented, and we’re paying for more administration than we need. No one is in charge.
    Only the Legislature can solve this problem. It can start by setting up a procedure for dissolving SPDs, when and where warranted.
    Then, if it can stop listening to the interests who profit from fragmentation, it can do what voters said 19 years they wanted it to do — allow local government to be consolidated and simplified.
    According to the main lobbyist for the SPDs, "It appears that proponents of consolidation just want power." He’s right; they do. And so do the opponents.
    And so do the people, who have waited for it long enough.
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Oh, one thing that has changed, slightly. The Legislature did, after this series, finally pass enabling legislation to allow for consolidation of governments. Not that we’ve seen that happen much since.

And we still have more than 500 SPDs. And still, no one knows the exact number.

16 thoughts on “What I wrote about SPDs in 1991

  1. Richard L. Wolfe

    Brad, I think I understand your view point on this issue but I cannot comment one way or the other without understanding where the state constitution stands on the issue.

  2. bud

    Whenever Brad uses terms like “fragmented” and “accountability” it’s time to run and hide. The 1992 state restructuring legislation was a complete abomination that cost the taxpayers lots and lots of money. But since the State was so enamoured with the whole thing they just were not able to properly criticize the problems that were created.
    The General Assembly went in looking for weapons of mass inefficiency and, having found little, went ahead and created a bit of chaos just to say they did something. Or worse, they found inefficiency and created even more! Imagine that, government making a bad problem much worse. The result was a fractured State Highway Department that needed 3 accounting units, 3 agency heads, 3 procurement units, 3 IT services. We ended up with fewer troopers, fewer DMV counter workers and fewer front-line maintenance staff in order to pay for the debacle. On top of that DPS ended up in smelly, rented trailers for years. I know people who moved 12 times over the course of about 7 years while doing the same job.
    I suggest that any more re-structuring is done with more care than the first go around. Frankly, the state was far better off before the last round. I just wish the State had had the intestinal fortitude to look into the many derilictions of duty by the various executives that “served” the citizens of our state in those spin-off agencies. But alas, they failed utterly in their journalistic responsibilities. And I do mean UTTERLY.

  3. bud

    I think my Democratic credentials have been well established here so I won’t belabor the point. But in the 2002 election for governor I proudly, and without hesitation pulled the lever for Mark Sanford to replace the excruciatingly awful Jim Hodges. His appointment of Boykin Rose to return to DPS was the single worst instances of politicaly chicanery I’ve ever seen. The disasterous Rose was arguably the worst agency head in state history. I took that appointment very personally.

  4. Doug Ross

    If we can’t get rid of half our wastefully inefficient school districts, why should we expect to get rid of other inefficient government entities?
    This is one of those areas where The State in its infinite wisdom has done everything in its power to ridicule Mark Sanford for not playing along with the power brokers who have created this mess. You want him to compromise his principles and be more of a team player… well, guess what? you can editorialize against the SPD’s and nothing will happen. Nothing.

  5. Lee Muller

    I am still waiting for that editorial supporting Mark Sanford’s efforts to reform SPDs and vetoes of funding for SPD pork.

  6. Brad Warthen

    Where has Lee been?
    And where has Doug been, for that matter? You must have missed the first couple of years that Sanford was in office, when we still believed he was serious about government restructuring — a platform that he had pretty much adopted from us, right down to the wording.
    Then we saw he wasn’t serious. It was profoundly disappointing.
    Our restructuring agenda remains what it has been since 1991. There is probably nothing, no single subject that we regularly write about to which we are more solidly committed.
    Doug’s characterization of our criticism of Sanford is about as off-base as you can get. People who don’t care about getting anything done like to applaud his theatrics — such as the idiotic stunt with the pigs — and characterize criticism as being about his “playing along.” Let me ‘splain something to you — if you want to change S.C. gummint, you have to get the Legislature to do it. There is no other way.
    But Mark Sanford is far more enamored of alienating lawmakers with empty gestures, and doesn’t care much at all for persuading them to make actual changes.
    We want to see the government restructured. And it’s been painfully obvious for quite some time that Mark Sanford isn’t going to be the one to get the Legislature to do that.

  7. Doug Ross

    Your ideas on restructuring fall into two categories:
    1) Those that will never happen because the Legislature has no compelling reason to give up any power
    2) Those “reforms” that are pure window dressing and do nothing of value
    You want Sanford to somehow both work with the legislators at the same time he has to tear down the complete structure they have built to retain their power. The only tool Sanford has is the ability to use his office to ridicule and chastise these people. Any sort of compromise defeats the purpose.
    Want to change this government? Start with term limits. Then add a balanced budget admendment. Then implement zero based budgeting. Then start slashing and burning every duplication of bureacracy that exists. Then replace the income tax with a flat tax. Then get rid of all the sales tax exemptions.
    Nothing will happen til we clean house in the legislature. NOTHING.
    But keep blaming Sanford. It’s like blaming the home owner when all the contractors skip town. “Why didn’t you work WITH THEM???”

  8. p.m.

    “Things don’t change in South Carolina; they just don’t.”
    But “S.C. can lead the world to bold energy solutions” if the headline on today’s editorial is true.
    Today’s editorial makes about as much sense as the Unabomber’s manifesto.
    To fantasize that South Carolina can lead the nation on energy just because a hydrogen conference is being held in Columbia, to say that gas has gone to $4 a gallon and will soon go much higher when it has fallen back to $3.25 or less since reaching $4, to connect the Russian invasion of Georgia to the Richland County bus system, it’s all just gobbledygook, bombast, Mayor Bob having a dream.
    The state that’s last in education won’t lead the nation to a new technology or a new ergy methodology, not when we can’t step past special purpose districts, our backward legislature and the Confederate flag.
    Really, things don’t change in South Carolina. They just don’t.

  9. Lee Muller

    Mr. Warthen,
    Why don’t you tell us exactly HOW Governor Sanford could work with the legislature to get them to accept his reforms?
    Why don’t you and your few editors stop serving as messenger boys for the corrupt ringleaders of the legislature, and try getting on the side of their opponents?
    No, you and your paper always support the legislators, the agency heads, the school superintendents, in almost every pork project. You will “demand accountability” in those two words only, then go back to blaming the taxpayers for not handing over “full funding” for “the children”.

  10. Doug Ross

    So here’s the question for the day – which state politician has The State endorsed who has done the most to improve any aspect of the way the government works? Can you name five guys who have made government more efficient?
    If you can’t, then this is all a waste of time.

  11. Harry Harris

    I really think the best answer to the SPD problem is more EWF, or perhaps a dose of TLC unless we can rein in the PRT.

  12. bud

    The State lost ALL credibility on this issue in the 1990s. I just ignore all this restructuring nonsense. I’ve seen how much of a disaster it can be.

  13. Lee Muller

    Did THE STATE have any credibility after covering up the USC Holderman scandal and the Lost Trust investigation?

  14. bud

    This restructuring issue is far too important to ignore. So let’s turn the clock back to 1991. That was the year The State launched it’s vaunted Power Failure columns in an effort to get the General Assmbly to re-structure state government. In the end a major overhaul was, in fact, accomplished. Carol Campbell regarded this as one of his most significant accomplishments. The State regarded this as a partial, success. Brad admitted that all they hoped to accomplish was not, yet he basically gave the legislation a luckwarm endorsement. Ok so far.
    Well let’s separate the facts from the rhetoric. Prior to restructuring, The South Carolina Department of Highways and Public Transportation (SCDHPT) was a huge agency that housed 3 major divisions: Engineering, Patrol and DMV. The DHPT certainly had it’s problems with accountability and cronyism, no doubt about it. Yet in many ways DHPT was a very efficient agency. Very little money was squandered on unnecessary employees, equipment or other expenses that didn’t relate directly to the mission at hand, building, maintaining and keeping our roads safe.
    In 1987 the agency embarked on a series of projects aimed at making our roads safer. All parts of the agency worked together to accomplish this mission. And the results were impressive. In 1987 South Carolina had a mileage death rate of 3.6 deaths per hundred million vehicle miles of travel. This was a whopping 50% above the national average. More than 1,000 people were being killed each year during the mid to late 80s.
    Following a very rigourous PR campaign, along with support from Patrol, maintenance and DMV working together for a common cause the state’s death rate dropped dramatically until, by 1992 (the year of restructuring) the mileage death rate was down to 2.3 – a 36% decline. Deaths overall were down from 1,087 to 807 during that period, a 26% reduction. And we had closed the gap with the national rate (1.8) to where we were only 27% higher, the closest we have been during the last 30 years. There was still plenty of work to do but the foundation was laid for continued improvement.
    But all this good work was about to be undone. Thanks to the restructuring debacle trooper strength declined as did maintenance field personnel and DMV workers. The fragmentation of the agency resulted in a loss of focus (largely due to the huge number of employees who were moved, both physically and structurally) and funding of the highly successful highways or dieways campaign. Over the next 7 years the state’s mileage death rate essentially stagnated and even increased slightly until by 1999 2.4 people died for every 100 million vehicle miles of travel. The national rate declined over the same period to 1.6. We were back to where we started, 50% above the national rate. Last year the figure was 55% higher.
    The moral to this story is clear. Get all the facts before embarking on a witch hunt that will result in a loss of services to the citizens. Bad legislation aimed at fixing a known problem can ultimately backfire to create even worse problems. Sadly, hundreds of South Carolinians had to lose their lives to pay for the restructuring debacle of 1992. Let’s make sure this doesn’t happen again.

  15. Lee Muller

    Government do-gooders killing people?
    Say it ain’t so, Joe!
    Tell us again why you want bureaucrats deciding if and what kind of medical care you will receive.


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