A pre-session legislative discussion

CRBR Publisher Bob Bouyea, Chamber President Otis Rawl, Rep. James Smith, Sen. Joel Lourie, Rep. Nathan Ballentine. In the foreground is former Rep. Elsie Rast Stuart, now chairwoman of the the Richland-Lexington Airport Commission. / grainy phone photo by Brad Warthen

I meant to post about this yesterday, when it happened, but better late than never.

ADCO had a table at the Columbia Regional Business Report‘s (that’s the outfit Mike Fitts is with) “Legislative Lowdown” breakfast at Embassy Suites. It was a good table. Lanier and I were joined by Alan Kahn, Jay Moskowitz, Bob Coble, Butch Bowers, Cameron Runyan and Grant Jackson.

We were there to hear a discussion by a panel featuring Otis Rawl from the state Chamber, Rep. James Smith, Sen. Joel Lourie, Rep. Nathan Ballentine and Rep. Chip Huggins. Joel was a few minutes late, and Chip had to leave just as Joel arrived, but it was still a good discussion.

Here’s Mike’s description of the event, in part (I’d quote the whole thing, but I don’t know how Mike’s cohorts feel about that Fair Use thing):

By Mike Fitts
Published Dec. 2, 2010

Lawmakers speaking at the Business Report’s Power Breakfast this morning said they see major difficulties ahead in the new budget year, but they also said there are new opportunities for bipartisanship.

The event, hosted at the Embassy Suites, featured Reps. Nathan Ballentine, R-Chapin, Chip Huggins, R-Columbia, and James Smith, D-Columbia; Sen. Joel Laurie, D-Columbia; and Otis Rawl, president and CEO of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce.

With a new Legislature and new governor coming to Columbia in January, much of the discussion focused on the budget crisis that will greet them.

Ballentine, a member of Gov.-elect Nikki Haley’s fiscal crisis task force, drew a stark picture of the challenges facing lawmakers. Ballentine compared the situation to a lifeboat with a limited number of seats. There won’t be enough dollars to take care of students, the elderly, the disabled and law enforcement, Ballentine said.

“Somebody’s going to get left out, and that’s going to hurt,” he said…

To Mike’s focused report I will add the following random observations:

  • I don’t know if this would have been the case if Chip Huggins had stayed, but the general consensus, or at least lack of overt conflict, between James, Joel and Nathan on issue after issue was quite noticeable. Nathan alluded to it, saying he was sure that the business people in the room were probably wondering why a pair of Democrats and a close ally of Nikki Haley were agreeing about issue after issue. (And some of the agreements were remarkable, going beyond mere civility, such as when Nathan volunteered his acknowledgement of the problems with Act 388.) Nathan further speculated that the audience might reasonably wonder why, in light of what they were hearing, the General Assembly had so much trouble getting anything done. He explained that the reason was that there were these 167 other people in the Legislature… And he was completely right. If we filled the Assembly with Jameses, Joels and Nathans, South Carolina would see a Golden Age of enlightened governance. These are reasonable young men who, despite their disagreements on some points are reasonable, deal with others in good faith, and truly want what’s best for South Carolina, and want it more than their own advancement or the good or their respective parties. If only their attitude were catching.
  • I’ll add to that point the observation that if all discourse about issues were on the intellectual level of this one, we’d see a very different, and much better, South Carolina. The conversation was wonderfully devoid of partisan, ideological, bumper-sticker cliches. For instance, I never heard anyone mention “growing government” or “taking back our state.” Observations were relevant, practical, and free of cant. I used to hear discussions like that regularly when I sat on the editorial board, because intelligent politicians did us the courtesy of leaving the meaningless catch-phrases behind. It was good to hear that kind of talk again. (It occurs to me that the fact that over the years I’ve been privileged to hear politicians at their best, trying to sound as smart as possible, may help to explain why I don’t have as jaded a view of officeholders as Doug and others do.) I’d be inclined to say that the discussion was on this level because the lawmakers were paying this assembly the same compliment of respect — but these particular lawmakers pay everyone that sort of respect. Which is why we need more like them.
  • Otis Rawl, incidentally, was slightly more confrontational — something you don’t usually see in a Chamber leader. He exuded the air at times of being impatient with the air of civil agreement in the room. When Nathan said that he had not realized when he voted for it the harm that Act 388 would cause — Otie challenged him directly, saying he knew good and well that his group had informed lawmakers ahead of time, and there was no excuse for anyone to claim innocence (I think he’s right in the aggregate — the body as a whole knew better, but ignored what they knew it order to scratch a political itch — but if Nathan says he didn’t understand, I believe him; he was a relatively inexperienced lawmaker at the time; and I appreciate greatly that he’s learned from experience). Awhile back, I chided Otie for not being more frank about what he thought on an issue. The Otis Rawl I saw Thursday morning could not be chided for the same thing. I suspect this reflects a growing dissatisfaction with Sanford-era fecklessness in the State House, which helped lead to the Chamber’s endorsement of Vincent over Nikki.
  • Speaking of Vincent, Nikki, Otie, James, Nathan and Joel … It struck me as interesting, just because language and civility interest me, that everyone speaking of Nikki Haley referred to her carefully as “Governor-Elect Haley.” It was notable partly because it was stilted coming from people who know her quite well as “Nikki,” but also because (and this might have been my imagination) there was a slight change of tone when the speakers said it, a shift to a formality mode. It seemed natural enough that the Democrats present would use that highly formal construction — it’s important to them (particularly since the two Democrats in question are Vincent Sheheen’s two best friends in the General Assembly) to sound scrupulously neutral and respectful in this post-election period. It’s a way of papering over their feelings about her election, and perfectly proper. It was also perfectly appropriate for Nathan to refer to her that way; it just sounded odder coming from him. They were seatmates, and allies in her fights with the leadership. But being a gentleman, he wasn’t going to top it the nob in a public setting by assuming excessive familiarity. Bottom line, just over a month ago ALL of them would have called her “Nikki.” But now they are the very pictures of proper Southern gentleman. Which I like. But then I’d like to see a return of the sort of manners I read about in Patrick O’Brian and Jane Austen. We just don’t see that very often nowadays.
  • As civil and intelligent as this discussion was (in fact, probably because it was so intelligent), it offered little hope for the General Assembly effectively dealing with any of the important issues facing our state in the foreseeable future. Everyone spoke with (cautious, on the part of the Democrats) optimism about Nikki — excuse me, Gov.-elect Haley — being able to work better with the Legislature than Mark Sanford has (a pitifully low bar). But I heard little hope offered that this, or anything else, would likely lead to the reforms that are needed. The institutional and ideological resistance to, say, comprehensive tax reform is just too powerful. The most hope Joel Lourie would offer is that steady pressure over a long period of time might yield some small progress. He cited as an example his and James’ long (eight-year) battle to get a sadly inadequate cigarette tax increase. The terrible truth, though, is that the cigarette tax was such a no-brainer — it shouldn’t have taken two days, much less eight years — that if IT took that long, much less simple and obvious reform seems unlikely in our lifetimes. But perhaps I’m not being as optimistic as I should be. It’s just that I’ve been fighting these battles, and hearing these same issues discussed, for so very long…

12 thoughts on “A pre-session legislative discussion

  1. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    So, these wonderful politicians who spoke so learnedly in your State offices, yet pander shamelessly IRL with soundbite bumperstickers–whose fault is that– theirs, or the voters who only vote for bumpersticker candidates?

  2. Brad

    Both. The voters for not being discriminating, the pols for being willing to pander and manipulate that failing in the electorate.

  3. Brad

    And I’m assuming that IRL here doesn’t refer to the Republic of Ireland, Industrial Research Limited, Indian River Lagoon or Indy Racing League (the first four options offered on Wikipedia’s disambiguation page).

    Acronyms are cool. But maybe we should stick to the ones that are immediately clear and unambiguous…

    Even the ones I know have unintended connotations. For instance, I know perfectly well what people mean when they say IMHO. But whenever I see it, I first think the person is saying either “I’M a HO,” or “I’M an assHOle”…

    That’s probably just me, though. I look at things holistically before it occurs to me to break them down. So I go “what’s that word” before I go “what group of words does that suggest.”

  4. Brad

    Responding to Doug’s “and the editorial boards that endorsed them…”

    Well, we didn’t. The people who came in spouting such nonsense didn’t get endorsed. Unless, of course, they were up against even BIGGER idiots.

    Which takes us back to the eternal debate with Doug. Doug would not endorse when the choice is between two or more evils. I hold that it is critically important to help voters discern which evil is the lesser. Why? Because one of them is actually going to win the office. No one with any sort of sense of responsibility to the electorate, or one’s readership, should just look away when there’s the possibility of helping voters mitigate the damage.

    And when the choice was between two unsavory choices, we said so. In no uncertain terms. It was important to communicate that voters should demand better in future elections…

  5. kc

    It occurs to me that the fact that over the years I’ve been privileged to hear politicians at their best, trying to sound as smart as possible, may help to explain why I don’t have as jaded a view of officeholders as Doug and others do.

    Actually, I would think that would make you MORE jaded – listening to them discuss issues thoughtfully with you and a few others, then going out and dumbing things down for us unwashed masses.

  6. Steve Gordy

    I think often of Churchill’s celebrate mot, “Democracy is a very bad system, but I ask you never to forget – all the others are so much worse.” The way I spin that nowadays are “Electoral nonsense is what we tolerate in order to live in a free nation.”

  7. Ralph Hightower

    Maybe I should get a bumper sticker that says “Don’t blame me. I voted for Vincent.”

    It is interesting that the Republican and Democrat Senators and Representatives are of like mind. But then the extremists like Gilda Cobb-Hunter and Glenn McConnell weren’t on the panel, so that may have skewed the civility. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) knows how to get things done. Jim Demint (R-SC) just knows how to say “Hell NO!”. Governing requires compromise, which hasn’t happened in a very long time.

    Yes, South Carolina faces daunting problems.

    As to referring to Nikki as “Gov’not Elect”, I think it’s only appropriate. After all, she ain’t our governor until January 12, 2011.

    I fired up my countdown timer to 1/12/2011 and it really doesn’t matter any more.

    SC Guv’not Mark Sanford has 38 days, 20 hours, 49 minutes, 48 seconds, 635 milliseconds left in office.

    Dum Spiro Spero. While I breathe, I hope. I hope that Nikki Haley will be the best damned governor that South Carolina has ever had.

    But, I’m not holding my breath.

    There’s 1501 days to Jan 14, 2015 inaugurate a new governor. That’s damned depressing.

  8. SusanG

    Thanks, Brad, for posting this. This kind of post is one of the reasons I read your blog — it helps me get a more complete picture of who these folks are when they’re not just doing sound-bites.

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