The legislative agenda? Same as it ever was

My ex-colleagues at The State did their annual laundry list of what the SC General Assembly should do in the session that convenes tomorrow, and as Cindi Scoppe acknowledged in her accompanying column, there wasn’t much new to see:

IF THE HEADLINE on today’s editorial provokes in you a sense of deja vu, that’s because it’s the same one we used last year to greet the annual return of the General Assembly. And it’s no different in substance from the year before that. In fact, the need to overhaul our tax code and spending policies and restructure our government have been among the top five issues confronting the Legislature for as far back as I can recall.

I’m not particularly fond of writing the same editorials year after year, but what choice is there? Our overarching problems are unchanged because the Legislature keeps tinkering around the edges or, worse, fixating on red-meat issues that satiate cable-news-engorged constituents but do nothing to nurture a state starved for a government that actually works. A government that provides the services that our state needs, in at least a moderately efficient way, and that pays for those services through a tax system that does not unnecessarily burden our citizens or undermine our values or give special favors to favored constituencies.

Yep, our state’s needs don’t change much from year to year. And neither do our lawmakers’ penchant for ignoring those needs.

If you’ll recall, my very last column at The State (“South Carolina’s Unfinished Business,” March 22, 2009) pretty much covered the same ground. That was almost three years ago. And after all that time, I would only need to reword one short passage:

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

Actually, you wouldn’t even have to reword it — you would just have to add a parenthetical acknowledging that our state has taken a tiny baby step in that direction. Other than that, the column could pretty much run as-is.

Little wonder that I don’t get too excited with the new session rolls around each year…

26 thoughts on “The legislative agenda? Same as it ever was

  1. Brad

    You know, if my friends at The State wanted to give the impression they were having a huge impact on the Legislature, one year they should do an agenda-setting piece that urges lawmakers to:

    — Have a feud with the governor.
    — Cut a tax — not on the basis of any sound economic reasoning, but based on which category of taxpayers is screaming the loudest at the moment.
    — Talk about reforming state government, but not do anything.
    — Spend half the session on some issue (such as Voter ID) that serves no purpose whatsoever other than affording Democrats and Republicans the opportunity to posture for their respective bases.
    — Act like the Confederate flag on the State House grounds doesn’t exist.
    — Violate the state constitution with legislation that applies only to part of the state.
    — Crush any effort by local governments to provide the kind of governmental initiatives that the state won’t undertake.

    … and so forth.

  2. Doug Ross

    Governors change. Career legislative hacks remain. Too bad you and The State are too busy with your Haley-tosis to go after the real problem people with any guts.

  3. Brad

    And Doug will never, ever get it. He thinks wasting my time criticizing lawmaker A, personally and specifically (instead of doing the thing that makes sense and holding the whole body responsible) has anywhere the chance to make a difference that holding the governor — Campbell, Beasley, Hodges, Sanford, Haley, to name all I have concentrated my criticism on — accountable can do.

    For instance, he doesn’t get it that 99 percent — or more — of my readers have absolutely zero opportunity to hold an individual lawmaker accountable. And if they could, replacing that one lawmaker would have practically zero effect on the inertia of the legislative bodies, which is institutional and profoundly resistant to change. Change every one of them, and the body would STILL be far less likely to effect change than one responsive and skilled governor who is committed to change. Which is why so much of my effort over the past couple of decades has gone to:
    — Giving the governor more power over the executive branch, so that SOMEONE can be held accountable for the first time in SC history;
    — Urging voters to elect change-oriented governors who both understand the kind of change that is needed and know how to effectively lead us, and the system, through such change; and
    — Never, ever letting the voters forget it when they screw up and fail to elect such people. (And, by the way, holding myself equally accountable by never letting voters forget when I back the wrong horse, as I did with Sanford in 2002 — and for that matter, with Haley in two legislative races).

    Doug thinks like an engineer, and simply doesn’t take into account the way that interpersonal dynamics work within a system. And I can’t explain it to him. So I get this grief from him all the time.

    He gets what I’ve been telling him and others for the past couple of decades — that the Legislature (not the individuals in it) is by design an obstacle to change. What he does not get is that the most effectively place to insert a lever to move the whole mess is in the executive — which is one reason by the legislative has been so reluctant, since before SC was even a state, to grant power to the executive.

    I could go on and on and on about this — and have done, for more than 20 years — but I can’t ever seem to communicate it to Doug.

    Nor can I get him to notice that I have spent VAST amounts of my time and effort on informing voters about the lawmakers who are up for election (the ones that small numbers of them can do something about) — but I have not, and will not, ever spend as much time on that than I will on the one political figure in state government that both has the greatest potential for having an impact, and who answers to all of the people.

  4. bud

    S.1027 by Sen. Dick Elliott proposes a public referendum on eliminating the Teacher and Employee Retention Incentive, a retirement give-away that legislators might finally be ready to dismantle. (Lawmakers have made it much less generous, but the idea of allowing individual employees, rather than their supervisors, to essentially determine whether they get paid extra remains offensive.)
    -Cindi Scoppe

    Now what is offensive is this type of comment. I usually respect Ms. Scoppe but this is not just misleading but insulting to state workers. Let me explain how TERI works and then we can have a real discussion rather than taking cheap shots.

    Let’s use an example to illustrate how the TERI program works. Rather than TERI being some sort of cash cow as Cindi implies TERI is basically an option for state workers to look at when they are approaching the end of their career. And unless it can be demonstrated that it costs taxpayers money then there should be no problem with it and it serves as a nice incentive to workers and a morale booster.

    Basically workers have two ways to bring their career to an end. Both have advantages and disadvantages. TERI may not always be the right choice. Many factors come into play. That’s right BOTH have advantages.

    Lets use an example. A state employee age 50 making 50K a year has been a loyal worker for 30 years and decides she wants to work 5 more years then leave. She can either (1) TERI or (2) Continue to work without TERIing. The TERI option would earn her a nice sum of money by depositing this employee’s retirement money, interest free, into an account that she can’t touch until retirement. For our sample employee that could be upwards of $125k-$140k or so after 5 years. That’s a nice perk. But there are at least 2 downsides. First her retirement credits are frozen. She can no longer increase her retirement check by (1) raises or (2) additional service time. She only gets the small (1%) retirement COLA increses. If, over the course of the 5 years she gets a promotion and/or large COLA while working the TERI contribution is NOT increased. Hence there is a risk that her retirement check will be substantially smaller than what it could have been had she simply chosen to work 5 more years.

    The other downside is TERI employees lose their greivance rights and it becomes much easier to terminate a TERI worker than a vested full time worker.

    So even though TERI is a good deal for most employees it is not the grand panacea that Cindi and others make it out to be. Further, I don’t think it actually costs the State or the retirement system much money since TERI employees continue to pay into the system at the same rate as a regular worker. Since these workers make more than a new employee the contributions could be substantial.

  5. Brad

    TERI shouldn’t exist because it has no good policy reason to exist.

    And it never did.

    When it was first conceived, the idea was to give school administrators the ability to keep good teachers — and only good teachers — on the job.

    Then, all sorts of rules (federal labor rules, maybe? I forget) and politics intervened, and TERI became instead something that any state employee could choose to take advantage of.

    It was intended to be a merit-based system that benefited both the people of South Carolina and the best teachers, but it didn’t turn out that way.

  6. Mark Stewart

    It was nice to see bud point out that it is easier to terminate TERI workers. How about simply terminating them all? I make no personal judgments against any municipal employee and so would be happy to simply send them all into real retirement. The system is a train wreck. It should be closed and put away.

    Some will say “but it keeps good, knowledgeable people in place in leadership positions”. True, but it also keeps the next generation from gaining the experience that they need to lead longer than a quasi-retiree ever could – or would. If one wants to continue to work for the government, great. If they want to retire, great. But fence-sitting on the best of both options? No.

  7. Brad

    Regarding TERI, I went back and refreshed my memory…

    The problem was federal pension laws. The state could have had a merit-based incentive program — and could have limited it to teachers — if it had been content to fund it through the budget. The problem was funding it through the pension system. That’s why it had to be available to all member of the S.C. Retirement System (the big system) and why it couldn’t be selective.

    What made this worse, as I recall, was that the part about non-selectivity didn’t become a concern until conference committee, and the conferees just took care of the problem without bothering to tell anyone. So the Legislature signed off on the final version of the law with many lawmakers believing that it was a merit-based system.

    Another one of those foulups for which the entire Legislature is responsible…

  8. Tim

    The other thing that TERI workers do is continue to fund the pension system through deductions to their paycheck into a benefit program(the retirement system) from which they derive no further benefits. They are already locked into their pension. If you remove the TERI program contributors, you may have an additional problem with the pension fund. Essentially they are a specially taxed class, and probably have a significant reason for a lawsuit due to that.

  9. Steven Davis

    Doug’s right, it’s always the Governor’s fault. It’s never these same 10-12 guys who have been in office since the Johnson administration. The only way things are going to change in this state are when the members of the “elite” drop dead. Just the state legislature version of Strom Thurmond and what’s his face.

  10. Steven Davis

    “one lawmaker would have practically zero effect on the inertia of the legislative bodies”

    So if McConnell, Peeler, Courson, Leatherman, or Land were removed that it wouldn’t mean a thing?

  11. Steven Davis

    The biggest problem with TERI is that it eliminates the possibility for advancement by lower ranked employees. I’ve witnessed sr. level employees TERI, then get hired on for another five years Post-TERI. It’s tough for people to advance when your supervisor “retires” then stays employed for an additional 10 years.

  12. Steven Davis

    As bad as TERI is, the program where teachers are expected to become “certified” which grants them an automatic $7500 per year increase is mind blowing. They get a 15%-20% raise for doing their job. I had a neighbor who passed the requirements, and they can’t be all that tough because I believe she had to use a map to get to work every morning, and I believe the reason why several children in my neighborhood were going to private schools.

  13. bud

    As usual I beat my head up against a wall to no avail. Brad, you and Cindi show me some figures that show how TERI costs the state or the retirement system money rather than throwing out all these vague, esoteric claims that it’s a bad law. Does it not provide an incentive to keep experienced workers? It’s just not true that TERI workers are not merit based. If that were the case TERI workers would have the same grievance rights as other workers. Plus, after 5 years workers can be let go without any cause. A non-TERI employee after the same years can continue on with all the greivance rights and is in fact very difficult to remove. In effect what you’re saying is completely false.

    It’s so offputting to see this state worker bashing without ever demonstrating any real problem. Seems like state workers get bashed plenty without making up problems that don’t exist.

  14. Doug Ross


    Of course I will never “get it”. You think the system is the problem and I think it is the people who are the problem. Since it is the people who have to change the system (and do it in a way that is not too their own benefit), you have to look at who is in charge of making the changes that the government would need in order to be more effective.

    You want me to believe that if you keep whining about Nikki Haley and Mark Sanford, that somehow the system will change. Meanwhile, Bobby Harrell, Hugh Leatherman, and Glenn McConnell are given the kid glove treatment.

    You want me to believe that if Vincent Sheheen was in the governor’s office, things would be significantly different. It wouldn’t.

    Yeah, I don’t get it.

  15. Tim

    “I believe she had to use a map to get to work every morning, ”

    Got a chuckle out of that. A map. I told that one to my GPS and it just harrumphed as I asked it how to get home from the office. My GPS so gets me.

  16. Silence

    @bud – How does your “sample” worker earning 50k annually amass 125-140k after 5 years earning no interest? It should be more like 16k in 5 years. Did you mean their entire 35 year career retirement contribution? In that case, it would be like 115k-ish. I don’t think state employees earn no interest though. I believe they earn 5%, rain or shine, on their retirement system contributions until they:
    1) remove it as a lump sum (as I did, just having vested with 5 years when I left the state) or
    2) decide to take their pension as an annuity. If they take the lump sum, they can either roll it over into another qualified retirement plan (IRA, 401(k) etc.) or they have to pay taxes on the disbursement.

    For your hypothetical employee, they’d be best served to take their state pension.

    Your hypothetical 55 year old would take home a hefty $27,300 annually, after having only contributed 115,000 (assuming that they earned 50k/year over their entire career).

    The actual amount they’d be able to withdraw, assuming the 5% interest rate would be about 216k.
    For comparison purposes, That amount would probably buy you a 30 year annuity paying 10-12k annually.

    If said employee is getting shafted, it’s NOTHING compared to the shafting the SC taxpayer is going to get when the general fund has to bail out the retirement system.

    Of course the SCRS uses an unrealistically high interest rate, I think 8.5% for its actuarial calculations. Their actual investment performance after expenses is probably 5-6%.

    Also, the SCRS uses an employees top earning years when figuring out the pension, I believe they use the “high 12 quarters” which tends to inflate the payout number a bit as well, when compared to the contribution. Most 30 year employees have a salary that rises over time, so in the early years (the ones that make a big difference when figuring compound interest) they haven’t paid much in anyhow.

    TERI or not, the SC pension system is a raw deal for taxpayers, but a VERY good deal for long-term state employees. You put in 6.5% of your salary and end up with a guaranteed pension for life, and the life of your spouse, if you so choose.

  17. Brad

    That’s where your point of view breaks down, Doug. They are not given the “kid glove treatment.” Far from it. If they were being given such treatment, you wouldn’t have read this post.

    It’s just that you have this misunderstanding of how things work. When the people who elected Bobby Harrell (he is THEIR creature, not the other way around, which I think is one of the things you misunderstand) all vote a certain way, it makes little sense to fantasize that things would be different if not for Bobby Harrell.

    I’ve watched the Legislature long enough to realize it matters little who is in those leadership positions. The Legislature has been exactly the same kind of obstacle to change that it is right now for more than 300 years, since long before this was a state. The only way we have any hope of an INDIVIDUAL to change the direction of state government is if we elect the right person governor and empower that person.

    In my time watching this legislature, I’ve seen different individuals hold every single leadership position. In some cases, I’ve seen several individuals cycle through those positions. It doesn’t change anything, because the INSTITUTION and the CULTURE are what they are.

    (An individual may put his stamp on some small thing — for instance, you can largely blame McConnell for the money spent on the Hunley, if you want to blame someone — but the big problems are megatrends, and bigger than individuals.)

    What I am telling you is true here, Doug; I just don’t know how to communicate it to you.

  18. Steven Davis

    A good friend of mine spent 20+ years working in the state Senate as a staff member. When he says there’s a pecking order in the chamber, there’s a pecking order. There are a handful, already mentioned in this thread, that are untouchable and a handful who could walk on water and get laughed at.

    How many people have cycled through the seats that McConnell, Courson, Land, or Leatherman hold? About as many as have sat in the seat your buddy Joe Riley sits in.

  19. Brad

    Actually, though, there is one way in which I’ve seen the Legislature change for the worse. And that is the advent of partisanship, which tended to come as the GOP took over the House and Senate. Things DID change when David Wilkins took over as speaker from Bob Sheheen. But they didn’t change that much when Wilkins was replaced by Harrell.

    Democrats would blame it on Republicans, but I don’t know that it matters much which came first. The fact is that when Republicans were not a factor, we didn’t have partisanship — we had factions within the Democratic party, but that was different.

    You have to have two viable parties to have partisanship, and the GOP rose to power by vehemently opposing Democrats just for being Democrats. For awhile the feckless Democrats just sort of took a beating and turned the other cheek, which made me like them when I first got here. But then, they started to fight back, starting about the time Jim Hodges became House Minority Leader.

    Now, of course, Democrats are so weak that they can’t function very well as participants in partisan warfare. So we’re almost back to the point where we started, with only one real party, and little partisan competition. Except that the Republicans, since they came up on such rhetoric, still like to rant about Democrats and “liberals” and such, which means our politics continue to have a strong partisan flavor…

    But I digress.

  20. Brad

    Steven, of COURSE there’s a pecking order. In the Senate, it used to be entirely seniority-based. Now, it’s based on seniority and party.

    The House is more democratic, which means that the speaker has to constantly keep the support of a coalition of people willing to vote for him. While he holds power, he has a certain amount of influence to wield, particularly through committee assignments. But if he were to try to tell lawmakers, day after day, to do something they didn’t agree with, they’d get a new speaker.

    Individuals matter more in the Senate. And for that matter, even though it, too, is now organized along partisan lines, a Democratic senator (or an in-betweener like Jake) has SOME opportunity to influence the process. In the House, if the Republican Caucus isn’t for it, it does not happen. If you’re a Democrat in the House, you might as well bring a good book to read.

  21. bud

    You have to have two viable parties to have partisanship …

    Now that we have no viable Democratic party in South Carolina we shouldn’t have any partisanship either. Since we don’t have partisanship, the root of all evil according to Brad, South Carolina should be a model of cooperative politics and a sort of utopia where everyone is healthy and prosperous and we hug each other and sing kumbaya.

    Seriously Brad, read some of the crap you write sometimes. This is bogus nonesense of the highest order. All this ranting and raving about partisanship has caused you to lose perspective. It’s not partisanship that’s killing our economy and way of life it’s the damn ultra-conservative GOP that’s taken control of our national discourse. The policies pushed by the GOP have given us recessions and wars and falling wages and income inequality and poor healthcare outcomes at huge costs. And damn it the MSM is largely to blame by shoving this partisanship nonsense at us at every turn. It disgusts me to no end to read this from all parts of the media spectrum. Get on to the culprits not this strawman partisanship crap.

  22. Doug Ross


    Your argument falls apart when you say that things will change when the Governor is empowered. How does that happen? Only if Bobby Harrell and Hugh Leatherman decide to give up the power. Fat chance.

    I believe that if The State newspaper put the antics of Harrell, Leatherman, etc. on the front page of the paper for a couple months, we’d see change much faster than your “pie in the sky” dream.

    For now, we have to live with Will Folks being the voice of the people. He has far greater influence than any other blogger or media outlet.

  23. bud

    @bud – How does your “sample” worker earning 50k annually amass 125-140k after 5 years earning no interest?

    After 30 years a state employee can retire with approximately a 50% pension. If that employee goes on TERI she is effectively putting half (in this case 1/2 of 50 or 25k) into a non-interest bearing account. 25k x 5 = 125k.

  24. Joanne

    I thank the Lord every day that I took advantage of TERI.

    It’s one of the few times as a teacher that I think I won something.


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