Hope springs, even in S.C. politics

Editorial Page Editor
Last week’s column chronicled my rapid descent into a state of fuming impatience over the things that we simply refuse to do in South Carolina even though they would obviously, irrefutably make us healthier, wealthier and wiser. The proximate object of my frustration was our steadfast refusal to save young people’s lives by raising our lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax to the national average. But I could as well have fulminated about our fragmented, unaccountable governmental structure, or the crying need for comprehensive tax reform, or… well, there’s a long list.
    And if I wanted to shake my fist at our fate a bit more today, I would have no shortage of cause. I could, for instance, dwell on the discouraging hour or so I spent Wednesday listening to our governor talk about his 2009 agenda: Yes, he’ll back a cigarette tax increase — a third of the way to the average — but only if he gets the counterbalancing tax cut he wants. Otherwise, he’ll veto it, again, without compunction. And yeah, he agrees that consolidating some of our smaller and less efficient school districts would be worthwhile, but he won’t spend energy pushing for that; he prefers to waste what little capital he has in the education arena in another debilitating ideological battle over vouchers. And so forth.
    But that’s not what I want to do today. Today, I want to offer hope, and I’ve got some on hand. This past week, we saw some remarkable instances in which things that just were not ever going to change in South Carolina — not no way, not nohow, as they might say in Oz — suddenly change, and for the better.
    Let’s start with the sudden emerging consensus to place the Department of Health and Environmental Control — one of our biggest and least answerable agencies — under the authority of the governor. Set aside what I just said about this particular governor. The governor — this one or any other — is the elected chief executive, and far more likely and able to see that the agency is run the way we the people want and expect it to be than a largely autonomous, unelected board is.
    This is painfully obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of how politics works, and has been ever since my colleagues and I started pushing for it with all our might back in 1991. At the time, though, we had few allies other than a few wonkish good-government types and the occasional governor who wanted the power, while almost everyone else in a position to do something about it or with a stake in the system was ready and able to resist the change.
    All sorts of people had all sorts of reasons to fight reform. Environmentalists, for instance, knew how to game the complicated system and lay roadblocks to polluters and other adversaries, and feared that a more “efficient” system — especially one run by a governor enamored of economic development at any cost — would make it harder to block permits they opposed.
    And in South Carolina, the status quo always has the upper hand in the Legislature. So I despaired of seeing reform.
    Then one day, just before Christmas I think it was, I ran into Sammy Fretwell — who along with fellow veteran reporter John Monk had been writing a hard-hitting series about DHEC’s failures to do its job well — and he told me a remarkable thing: A key environmental leader who had long opposed making DHEC a Cabinet agency had become a convert to accountability.
    That was wonderful, but it was just the beginning. Other conservationists started working for, rather than against, a bipartisan bill backed by longtime restructuring stalwart Sen. John Courson and Sen. Phil Leventis in the Senate, and a similar bill in the House. The stunner, the coup de grace to my lingering doubts, came in Thursday’s paper: Bo Aughtry, chairman of the DHEC board, the man at the very center of the status quo’s sanctum sanctorum, called for making it a Cabinet agency. And several former board chairs agreed with him.
    Folks, stuff like this doesn’t happen in South Carolina. But it did, and is continuing to happen. And if it happened on this issue, it can happen on others. Such as, say, transparency.
    Remember what happened at the end of 2008 to Nikki Haley and Nathan Ballentine, two young GOP lawmakers who were innocent enough — and guileless, idealistic and dumb enough — to confront the leadership openly and directly on the need to have roll-call votes on important action? They got crushed, as one would expect. They were handed their heads. Advocates of reform were appalled, but expected nothing different.
    Then, on Wednesday, the House voted, unanimously, to do pretty much what Ms. Haley wanted. And the Senate did much the same. And all of a sudden, it was touted on all hands — by the leadership as well as by the governor and the long-suffering reformers — as just what everyone had wanted all along. And Nikki Haley, rising like a phoenix, is the heroine of the hour.
    Stuff like this doesn’t happen, not like this, not out of nowhere, not out of the mere fact that it’s the right thing to do and there are no good reasons not to do it, not in South Carolina. But it did.
    So now I’m just seeing hope everywhere. Such as in a poll released Wednesday that showed that 74 percent of S.C. voters support raising our cigarette tax to the national average. Sixty percent favor it strongly.
    Here’s the thing about that: As I indicated in last week’s column, the arguments for going all the way to the national average are so strong, and the arguments not to do so are so weak, that only the most perverse sort of resistance to rational change can prevent it from happening.
    In the past, such perversity has been richly abundant in South Carolina. But last week, we seemed to suffer a sudden shortage of it on two surprising fronts.
    So take hope.

For more to be hopeful about, please go to thestate.com/bradsblog/.

20 thoughts on “Hope springs, even in S.C. politics

  1. Lee Muller

    If the possibility of raising taxes on a minority group by 500 percent gives you hope, you are part of what is wrong in America today.

  2. Rich

    We need a constitutional convention in S.C. that would scrap the racist Tillman constitution with which we are now saddled from the bad old days of Jim Crow and write a much shorter, more up-to-date document that would reflect the need for greater governmental accountability, rational and non-regressive taxation, and a true balance of power between the three branches of government. The governor should finally be able to appoint a cabinet consisting of all agency heads (including the department of education, DHEC, DOT, and what is now the CHE) that would be responsible to him/her and serve at the governor’s pleasure while being completely answerable to him/her alone, and not the legislature, whose role would be reduced to that of confirming the governor’s appointees to office.
    The new constitution should mirror the federal constitution by omitting all references to the deity, scaling back the legislature’s powers to a set, enumerated list of items, and omitting any ideological statements, however well intentioned, that could give rise to unending litigation.
    An example of the latter would be the current constitutional requirement that S.C. provide all students a minimally adequate education. Well, I am all for that, but it should be part of the DOE’s mission statement and subject to internal interpretation and revision, not enshrined in the constitution where it can easily become the object of endless court battles.
    The shorter the final document, the better. Instead of a lengthy bill of rights, for instance, it would be enough to say that the bill of rights in our federal charter shall be recognized as incorporated in the new S.C. constitution by virtue of the supremacy clause. Indeed, one brief provision stating, finally, that S.C. shall henceforth and irrevocably recognize the supremacy of the federal government and the constitution of the United States would be very nice.
    Brad, your ideas about state government reform are ones I usually agree with. I have followed the State newspaper’s noble campaign for constitutional reform for the last twenty years, and I have not seen much movement, if you except the modest reforms enacted in the 90s.
    What we need is something more revolutionary. A new constitution to streamline, democratize, and rationalize government from top to bottom would put S.C. in the forefront of state-level reform in a time of deep economic stress.
    But, I fear, we’ll miss the boat again. We will only be reforming DSS, DHEC, and the DOT when the stench of corruption, incompetence, and malfeasance in those agencies becomes too much to bear even for the Republican fat cats who control our state government for their own benefit.

  3. Lee Muller

    If the socialist ilk have any part in rewriting any Constitution, they would remove real rights to free speech, self-defense, and ownership of property, and add a bunch of Marxist “rights” for the State to provide “free” medical care, education, housing, food, etc, to the mob.
    Of course, it would all be mediocre services, because the Productive Minority will refuse to be slaves, and the socialists would murder everyone who dissented. When the accumulated wealth was consumed, the socialist state would collapse.

  4. KP

    So, what would all this mean for the Santee Cooper plant on the Pee Dee river? I can’t imagine that Sanford would oppose it, even though that would be the responsible position.

  5. Lee Muller

    99% of those opposed to coal-fired generating plants and nuclear plants don’t know a thing about the technology, the risks, the benefits, or the trade-offs.
    They throw around some of their enviro-paganism about a few statistics, which they don’t even understand.
    For example, they cite the 95 lbs a year of mercury that MIGHT be emitted. They don’t know. No one knows, because no one knows what the coal source will be. Anyway, that 95 lbs of mercury in the air is a lot better than the pollutants in those new “green” light bulbs the Greenies want to mandate.
    And where do they intend to get the electricity for all these wondrous electric cars Obama is designing?
    Oh, they forgot about disposing of all the mercury, lead, cadmium and acids in those batteries, too.

  6. slugger

    I an sitting here watching global warming falling down out of the sky. There is about 3 inches at present.
    Check the stock market. It is also falling just like Chicken Licken said when they elected Obama.

  7. bud

    I hate to break this to you Slugger but the DOW dropped a whopping 23% during Bush’s 8 years in office. That’s the worst of any president since Herbert Hoover.
    But like Brad says hope springs eternal. Now with the worst president in America history only an hour away from passing into private live we have hope for a better future. Hope that businesses can become profitable again. Hope that jobs will again become plentiful and pay well. Hope that our foreign policy can become one that focuses on the dignity of our fellow man, not the confrontational bully that it became under the Bush disaster.
    And the list goes on. Obama will lead us to a better future. I predict a DOW of 15,000 before Obama’s first term is up. Wages will improve. The housing and auto industries will once again lead the economy to great prosperity as unemployment falls to 4%. The green revolution will end the wasteful, polluting ways that have led only to environmental ruin. We will be out of Iraq and well on our way to wrapping things up in Afghanistan. This is a time to shed a tear of joy in great anticipation of the greatness that lies ahead.

  8. Lee Muller

    The stock market went UP 40% under GW Bush, and lost almost all of it since Obama sewed up the nomination.
    Obama’s racist message of hate and punishment for the achievers – white, Latino, Asian, and especially blacks – has frightened money out of the market. Investment has stopped until they see what he does.
    The Democrat’s mortgage scandal killed banking. The ringleaders are not going to jail. Half of them are appointed to Obama’s cabinet and staff.

  9. Lee Muller

    There is a stong connection between the mortgage scandal which was created by Carter, Clinton, and liberal Democrats, and the collapse of the stock market.
    Smart investors take seriously the December hearings on confiscating the 401-k and IRA plans. There is over $6 TRILLION in cash now on the sidelines, and more moving out of the market every day.

  10. Brad Warthen

    KP, don’t hold your breath on the governor taking a position on the coal plant. He was asked about it at lunch last week, and ducked the issue — and was frank about the fact that he WAS ducking the issue….

    Not that I can blame him. The issue is not as open-and-shut to me as it is to you. I would probably side with the environmentalists if I heard them proposing something more substantial for meeting the state’s future power needs than “conservation.” Conservation is great and wonderful and I’m all for it, but it doesn’t seem a likely engine for stimulating an economy that still lags behind the rest of the nation. Conservation is something I would tend to do IN ADDITION TO building greater capacity for power generation.

    If the opponents were saying, “Let’s see if we can accelerate the building of nuclear plants rather than build this stopgap plant,” they’d probably win me over. But that’s not what they’re saying. I think S.C. has to build up its power infrastructure just as surely as it needs to improve human capital through education and all the other things we need to do to move forward in this state.

    All of that said, I’m not sure this particular plant at this time in this place is what we need. What I want to see is how we can provide the power for future economic growth without it. And I haven’t heard that argument yet.

    Changing subjects…

    Rich, you may be interested to know that my own interest in government restructuring, which we spelled out in extreme detail in 1991 in our “Power Failure” series, arose from a series of op-eds that Walter Edgar and Blease Graham wrote in 1990 in which they advocated a constitutional convention (and here’s a column from 2005 in which I retold that story). We’ve never gone that far because, as Huck Finn would say, it seems sorta like sitting on a powder keg and putting a match to it just to see which way you’d go. The potential to get something far worse than we have now at a constitutional convention has caused me to shy away from it. But it’s a legitimate argument; I just haven’t been persuaded to go there.

  11. slugger

    There is one thing that I would like to say about the State of The State as we experience it today on the day that we have sworn in a new President (Obama).
    All the years that I have lived my life as a born citizen of the United States of America of parents that were born here and descendents of the war between the states, I have had confidence in our government (elected officials) that they were elected to protect our country from foreign invasion and prepare a budget that protect us from financial harm.
    The founding fathers would not recognize what has happened to our country. We are mired in a financial quagmire that places the innocent voter and investor at the mercy of elected officials that do not protect the interest of the voter. We are raped of
    our savings to provide bailout money to protect those that profit from our ignorance in electing them to office to protect us from financial harm.
    The dumb get dumber and the rich get richer.
    Until we see people going to prison for greed and raping the taxpayer to bailout those that should answer to us, the taxpayer, we should not sit back and give approval. We need a movement to take back honesty in government before our investments in our financial future get to zero.

  12. Lee Muller

    Eric Holder prosecuting Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, Rahm Emmanuel, and others for looting FNMA and FMAC? Don’t hold your breath.

  13. Rich

    I am still in favor of a constitutional convention. It would put S.C. on the national stage and I do believe that, in view of the massive defeat suffered nationally by Republicans, they would be on their best behavior, so to speak. This would play right into my concern that we write a minimalist constitution for S.C. that would be devoid of ideological positions except democratic republicanism.
    If we can keep the divisive ideological issues out of a new constitution, we could focus on the real defects of the Tillman constitution, which are structural more than ideological–the latter have largely been dealt with, except the requirement that officeholders believe in the Supreme Being.
    The Tillman Constitution, with its weak governorship, pre-eminent legislature, minimal to non-existent local government, and over-reliance on boards and commissions answerable to nobody once appointed, was designed to prevent poor whites from ever banding together and, worse still–including blacks, and actually using the franchise to vote in a government that would serve their interests rather than the planter aristocracy and the milltown despots–all the while permanently subjecting African Americans to a state of virtual non-citizenship, bereft of basic human rights.
    Now that the raison d’être of the Tillman Constitution no longer legally exists (subjection of blacks and poor whites), there is no reason to maintain the fragmented state of the executive branch and the overweening, preponderant fat-cat legislature of blow-hard grandees (among which I would include Bobby Harrell for his idiotic sponsorship of the bill to keep non-citizens out of state higher education).
    A constitutional convention in S.C. could only go so far because any constitutional project would have to be approved by both the voters and ultimately be subject to Congress and the national Supreme Court. I.e., we are simply not allowed to write a constitution that would deny people their civil rights, deny the theory of evolution, make the Southern Baptist Convention our state church, etc.
    Besides, the nation would be watching. The debate would be national concerning what was happening in the cradle of secession, treason, and the Confederacy. I don’t think my words are too strong. As Randy E observed concerning life in Connecticut, what animates us here simply is a non-issue up there. That people are equal and have the same rights, that government should help the people, that education should be adequately funded, that religious beliefs should be private and not animate public policy–these things are taken for granted outside of the eleven states of the old confederacy.
    I do think that there are many people of all backgrounds in this state who are of good will and who would come together to craft a state constitution that would finally restore S.C. to the Union and serve as a beacon for good government to the rest of the country. It could be our chance to shine. As crazy ideas percolating among the Mullerites came up, they would be considered carefully and then shot down.
    The use of a constitutional convention, which you fear might result in a worse document than the absurdity under which we are governed now (I do believe FreedomHouse would rank us 4/4–partly free, if we were an independent republic), would have an effective brake placed upon it by the fact that whatever was produced would have to be consistent with the U.S. constitution and the decisions of the US Supreme Court.
    I am optimistic about our people. South Carolina could lead the South in good, cost-effective, model state government. We have a lot of talent and ability here in this state. And let’s not forget that this is the state that boosted Obama’s campaign by handing him our state in the Democratic primary. That was a defeat from which Hillary did not recover. Much as I love Hillary, S.C. chose Obama, as did I.
    So let’s be bold and say, yes we can! Let’s have a constitutional convention and let’s not just elect lawyers to it. I am a fairly intelligent social studies teacher with a doctorate in education from USC. I would run for this one-time office and, once done, return to the classroom–an educational Cincinnatus, back at the plow.
    I may be interested in politics, but I am no politician. I do believe, however, that any constitutional convention should represent a broad cross-section of the population from a variety of backgrounds.
    We cannot have renewal from on high; it must come from all sections of the Commonwealth.

  14. Steve Gordy

    I second Rich’s motion. Until SC gets a new constitution, we will continue to lag behind not only the rest of the nation, but states like Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina.

  15. Lee Muller

    Would you accept a Constitution which guaranteed only freedom to pursue your own dreams, and no goods or services at the expense of others?
    Go ahead a post your wish list for a new Constitution, to see if you think like an American or a European serf.


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