South Carolina’s unfinished business


THE COLUMN I’d prefer to be remembered for — my fond reflection on how great it has been to work here with Robert Ariail — ran on Friday. But I hope you’ll forgive me if I close my career at this newspaper with a tough-love piece about unfinished business in South Carolina. Keep in mind, I say these things because I do love my state dearly, and I want the best for it. I always have.

None of these issues will come as a surprise to you. I’ve gone on and on about them for years. These are things we need to do if our state is to reach its potential — to put it more bluntly, to catch up with all those other states whose people are healthier, wealthier and (apparently, given our resistance to reform) wiser than we are.

Each of these items is interwoven with the others; each could be a book (one that I’ve written, on these pages). But here’s the short version:

Improve our schools. Stop talking about nonsensical distractions — such as our governor’s proposal to pay people to pull their children out of our schools — and fix the schools. The only way we will ever raise incomes and overcome the legacy of our economy having been built upon slavery is to make sure everyone has a decent education. And the only possible way to do that is through a statewide system of public schools, with the more affluent areas underwriting the more depressed ones. Public schools are the only ones we the people control, and they have to do whatever we decide they should do. Here are some of the changes we should implement: Pay teachers more for better performance, not for initials after their names; eliminate waste and reduce incompetence by cutting the number of districts from 85 to no more than one per county; empower principals to hire and fire. Let’s stop talking, and get these things done.

Restructure state government. Right now, most of the executive branch is fragmented into scores of tiny islands that answer to no one. Make the executive branch accountable to the elected chief executive, so that our next governor (and here’s another thing for our to-do list — elect a better governor) can pull our limited resources together and get state agencies working together to accomplish the agenda upon which he (or she) is elected. Our current system was designed, intentionally, to resist change. We have to replace it to move forward.

Restructure local government. To give you but one example — the real-world economic community that we informally name “Columbia” consists of more than a dozen municipalities, two counties, seven school districts and an absurd tangle of independent little jurisdictions such as fire, recreation, water and sewer districts. The technical, legal city of Columbia — a mere fraction of the real community — is “governed” in a way that is guaranteed to shield both city administrators and elected officials from accountability. Statewide, we need to make it easier for local governments to consolidate and annex, and get rid of the more than 500 special purpose districts that unnecessarily complicate governance on the local level.

Set local governments free. Let the people elected to run the governments closest to the people run them, without interference by state legislators. The ways that the people who should be minding state business (and you’d think they’d have enough on their plates) meddle in local matters are legion. In some communities they appoint school board members (in Dillon County, a single lawmaker — who happens to be an employee of the school system — determines who will be on the school board). In others, they set school budgets. Collectively, legislators put local governments statewide in a ridiculous bind, writing impossible rules for how and even how much they can tax. Local people know what their communities need; leave them alone.

Let our colleges and universities drive our economy. The presidents of our three research universities have made strides, cooperating to an extraordinary degree. It needs to become the focused policy of this state to use our public institutions of higher education to attract the best and brightest, keep them here and foster research that puts us on the cutting edge of wealth-creating innovation. That means funding the endowed chairs program at twice the level that we did when we were actually investing in it, and restoring support for the schools themselves. We are 40 years behind North Carolina and Georgia. We won’t catch up in my lifetime, but we need to start trying.

Overhaul our tax system. Figure out what state government needs to do, the things that only it can do, then determine what that costs, and devise and implement a fair, balanced and reliable way of funding it. That means scrapping our entire tax structure, and making it serve all of the people of this state, rather than overlapping, competing, narrow interests.

Some of these things are tough; others are less so. But they are all essential to getting our act together in South Carolina. To help us warm up for the harder ones, I suggest we do the following immediately:

Raise our lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax by a dollar, bringing us (almost) to the national average, and saving thousands of young lives.

Remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.

While those last two are easier to implement, they are essential to proving to the world and ourselves that we are serious about building a better South Carolina. The reasons that have been offered not to do those two, simple things are not reasons in any rational sense, but rather outgrowths of the mind-sets that have held us back since 1865.

Which is long enough.

Mr. Warthen was vice president and editorial page editor of The State through Friday. He worked at the paper for 22 years. Find his new blog at, or e-mail him at

25 thoughts on “South Carolina’s unfinished business

  1. brad

    Someone sent me this kind note about my column today:

    You Column that appeared in The State on Sunday March 22, 2009 should have been on the front page. However, I still do not understand the issue of “The Confederate Flag”. It has nothing to do with the issue regarding the blacks or the slaves. It is a proud symbol of the brave men who fought for the south regardless of color. That is one of the problems with our country today. Giving in to the minority regardless of color, religion or other matters regarding minority. Yes, you are right. I am a “northerner” but has lived in the south for 25 years and has been bewildered by a small matter of a flag that is flown for men and women who fought for the South.

    To which I responded:

    Thanks so much for the kind words about the column.

    Here’s the thing about the flag – it is indeed a small matter to take it down. Or should be. But in South Carolina, for some reason, we can’t bring ourselves to do that. That clinging to the Lost Cause, rather than moving on into a better future, is exactly why we don’t move forward in South Carolina.

    I am not a minority. You are not “giving in to a minority” (although what would be wrong with that I don’t know) if you listen to me and stop paying somebody to hoist that flag in front of our seat of government every day. Most of the people who think it’s ridiculous to keep flying that flag, who look at it and shake their heads about our crazy state, which keeps advertising to the world that we are NOT letting go of the mentality that caused our ancestors to fire on Fort Sumter in the first place, are white. White folks – the sort who would be in a position to invest in our state — look at that and figure South Carolina will NEVER move on, that we are just hopeless.

    And please don’t let anybody tell you that it’s about honoring their ancestors. You do that with monuments. You do that with tombstones. You do it with bronze plaques. You don’t do it by raising the flag of a dead, lost (and, as it happens, tragically wrong) cause. A flag is a living thing. And that’s why neo-Confederates such as Glenn McConnell refused to consider a bronze plaque instead. It’s why McConnell had the heavy cotton (and historically accurate) flag, that seldom raised in the breeze, replaced by a nylon one. Because you know, our ancestors (and five of my great-grandfathers wore the gray uniform in that war) fought under a nylon flag. That thing has nothing to do with our ancestors (personally, I consider this charade an insult to my ancestors; if you’ll notice THEY, and their children who knew them, didn’t fly this flag at the State House, because they knew the war was over), and everything to do with defiantly embracing their cause. And that, among other things, is just insane.

    Note that I paired this issue with raising the cigarette tax. How are they alike? Because the reasons for NOT doing them are just so off-the-wall, and so self-destructive.

  2. Ralph Hightower

    Raising the cigarette tax won’t happen as long as Governot Mark “Fred” Sanford is driving our state down in places where we want to be first and in first place where we should be last.

    Sanford won’t raise a tax without the tax being revenue neutral.

    Six hundred and sixty-one days is a long wait for someone that will lead South Carolina.

  3. Herb Brasher

    That flag was put up in 1962 on the state house in order to make an anti-civil rights statement, was it not? The President should have ordered it down immediately. It has been on the grounds 47 years too long.

    My great-great-great grandfather also fought for the Confederacy, but I have no interest in honoring him in this way.

  4. Karen McLeod

    Just a few questions for those who claim that flying the confederate flag is a tribute to the soldiers of the confederacy, and has nothing to do with racial hatred: why, why, why did you, and do you allow that flag to be so dishonored by being flown by the KKK, by skinheads, and by neo-nazis without protesting massively? Why aren’t you out there shouting them down, and taking those flags away from them? Where are the letters of outrage? If Senator McConnell is so sure that we are honoring the confederacy, where are his speeches deploring the use of that flag by these hatred-ridden, divisive groups?

  5. johannesdesilencio

    Are you thinkin’ about running for something, Brad? Sounds like a platform to me. I think raising taxes, being ashamed of our history, and increasing reliance on our public schools are tremendous ideas.

  6. Bart


    I have long been a vocal opponent of skinheads, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups co-opting the Confederate flag for their sick purposes and a symbol of their misguided beliefs. When I see a racist group with the Confederate flag flying, I get sick to my stomach.

    My forefathers fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy. I am not ashamed of my heritage but I am ashamed of how we have let the flag become an insult and a symbol of shame.

    But, does anyone have an answer? We are supposed to be a nation of freedoms and one of those is freedom of speech. The flying of a flag is a form of speech or freedom of expression so what are we supposed to do? Do I walk up to a skinhead and rip the flag from his hands? Do I interrupt a neo-Nazi rally and take the flag down? You tell me. We are told to be non-violent but if we take measures to take back the flag, based on prior experience, violence will come.

    The flag has become a strawman for those who want it to be one. I find more things to concern myself with than the flag issue. In time, it will be removed but for now, we have other problems that are much more pressing.

  7. Greg Flowers

    OK, I understand the historical differences, but why, from a practical standpoint are counties and cities governed so differently in SC (indeed in most of the nation)? Municipalities generally only elect the governing council and mayor while counties (except under the seldom used supervisor system) have a council of 5 to 11 members but also popularly elected treasurer, auditor, clerk of court and sheriff (quick, what are the duties of the county auditor?). Why should there not be a countywide equivalent of mayor and have all subordinate positions appointed by the county mayor subject to the approval of council.

    Annexation laws need to be revised so that the political and economic realitites can be the same.

    Consolidation of counties should be made easier. Counties were established so that the seat would be within a one day horseback ride of all citizens. Many small counties would benefit by being amalgamated with with a county including a growing urban area. For instance a county consisting of the present Richland, Lexington, Saluda, Fairfield, Calhoun and maybe Kershaw Counties might make sense anchored by a much larger City of Columbia encompassing Columbia, Chapin, Irmo, Lexington, Forest Acres, Cayce, Arcadia Lakes, Springdale, South Congaree, West Columbia and surrounding now unincorporated suburban areas. This new county should be served by a single school district and judicial circuit.

    We shall never optimize state higher education in this state without a board of regents which controls all state post secondary education. We need to recognize that our TEC schools are now community colleges, have their names reflect this and make them a part of the higher education system.

    In Tennessee, the President of the State Senate (a senator elected to this post) serves in and presides over the Senate and fills any vacancy in the office of Governor. We should consider this with provisions for a special election within 120 days or so. The office of Lieutenant Governor is ridiculous.

    People may honor their ancestors in any manner they deem appropriate. I am unaware of any edict (Warthen’s Law?) which dictates that they may only be honored by means of tombstones, monuments and bronze plaques.

  8. Karen McLeod

    Bart, I understand what you are saying. But I have never heard nor seen any group protesting these individuals besmirching the confederate flag. Individuals certainly have a right to fly whatever flag they please. But when the state opts to fly a non-sovereign flag, ostensibly on behalf of all citizens of the state, it becomes a problem. When that flag upsets a goodly portion of the citizens of that state, it becomes a real problem. And because that flag has been flown by hate groups so frequently without anyone actively protesting it, that flag has become identified with those hate groups in most people’s minds. That’s why the confederate flag is viewed by those outside SC as an indicator of a backward, provincial culture.

  9. brad

    Yeah, Bart, fly any flag you want. But don’t force ME to fly it. And by requiring by law that the flag be flown in front of MY State House, on MY behalf, that’s what you’re doing.

  10. Lee Muller

    Contrary to the Big Lie of the NAACP, the Battle Flag was not put on the State House to commemorate slavery, but at the request of President Eisenhower, as part of the Civil War Centennial.

    The honoring of the soldiers, North and South, went on from 1960 through 1965. It rekindled interest in history, especially in the South, which at the time had a much higher percentage of natives than the North.

  11. Bart

    “Yeah, Bart, fly any flag you want. But don’t force ME to fly it. And by requiring by law that the flag be flown in front of MY State House, on MY behalf, that’s what you’re doing.”

    Brad and Karen,

    Where in my comments did I advocate FORCING YOU to fly the damn flag? Where Brad? I commented on my position and thought I did so with some sense of reason. Apparently in your haste to find fault, you took my words and interpreted them to suit your purpose. And I didn’t take your comments the wrong way. They speak loud and clear on their own with emphasis on ME and MY for effect.

    I have always hated the KKK, skinheads, neo-Nazis, and any racist group. I have stood up and asked the flag be removed from their parades and ceremonies. How the hell do you think I understand how violence can be the result from just asking.

    Rememer, the state house belongs to me just as much as it does you. I was glad the day the flag came down and found its way to another location. At that particular time, it was a good compromise.

    You might want to take a history lesson from Lee. He is absolutely right about Eisenhower asking for the flag to be flown in commemoration of the Civil War Centennial.

  12. Birch Barlow

    I had always heard that the flag was placed on top of the capital to celebrate the Civil War Centennial as well. Of course if this is the case, then it should have come down in 1965.

    For me, the question is not:

    “Why is the flag where it is?” or
    “What did the flag originally stand for?” or even
    “What is in the intent of those who wish to see it on the state house grounds?”
    It is only this:

    “Does this flag represent a symbol of hate and oppression to a large population in this state?”

    And the obvious answer is yes. And for that reason alone it must be removed. I understand heritage. I, like other commenters, am directly descended from at least one soldier in the Civil War. My parents’ even have the certificate he received for fighting in various battles in the ‘Lost Cause.’ I find it all very fascinating. But this to me is not sufficient. Can not flag supporters put aside their pride for just one moment and see the hate that the Confederate Flag represents to so many people — these same people who are represented by the two flags currently flying over the State House?

    And on an unrelated point, I admit I got a chuckle at Brad’s statement about being “forced” to fly the flag. Usually the talk of government “forcing” individuals to do something they don’t want to do is left up to the adolescent, radical, selfish libertarian crowd. Especially, since in reality, no, no one is forcing you to fly the flag by proxy. Likewise, abortion (just an example — let’s not go there) is legal in this country, but it is not being carried out in your name either.

  13. Greg Flowers

    OK Brad, you are a big fan (as am I) of representative democracy where our duly elected representatives make decisions on our behalf as a result of compromise between competing factions. That was exactly what happened here with considerable transparency (the only example I am aware of where General Assembly debate was available on the radio [fanatics can stream the sessions on the computer but that requires a little more effort]). The debate went on and on going on ad nauseum even dealing with the precise height of the pole. At the end of the day there was a result that NO ONE was completely happy with. To me the current situation expresses the collective will of the people of this state acting through their representatives.

  14. Greg Flowers

    The difference between the most recent compromise and 1962 is that all parties were at the table.

  15. Karen McLeod

    Bart, as I said, I understand that you are proud of the Confederate flag. At one time I was, too, and I wish I could have kept the simple faith. I applaud that you did stand up to the hate-meisters and at least request that they not fly that flag. Too bad more didn’t organize with you to present a united front. Unfortunately, thanks to lots and lots of air time, the flag has come to be identified with those who wholesale hate and divisiveness. That’s not what you think of when you see it, I know. It’s not what I used to think of it. But that’s the association that has been presented to the world. The reason I think it should come down from the State House Grounds is that I don’t want SC to be seen in that light. Anyone who wishes is welcome to fly that flag in their yard or in front of their business. But to fly it on state house grounds says to the world that we are a tribal society with no tolerance for any other group. To the rest of the world it’s perceived as an in-your-face insult. Those of us who grew up in the South may not perceive it that way, but that’s the way the rest of the world does. So let’s put the flag in a museum, or at a memorial, or in the yard, or in front of a business; let’s not fly it on our state house grounds.

  16. Bart


    In my final word on the subject, I do understand the negative impact the flag has upon some who view it as a symbol of racism, hatred, and bigotry. Regardless of what Brad or others may think, I do not want to impose the flag on anyone. It is an icon of my heritage and I view it as such. How others perceive it is a matter of personal choice.

    I would have no objection it if was removed from the capitol grounds because I am first and foremost a citizen of the United States of America, not the Confederacy. I am also a citizen of the state of South Carolina and a supporter of the sovereignty of states rights and believe that states have the sole authority sans federal interference over issues under the auspices of a state governing body.

    As stated earlier, right now we have much more pressing problems than where to locate the Confederate flag. Eventually the issue will be resolved.

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