I went to this morning’s “Legislative Lowdown” breakfast sponsored by the Columbia Regional Business Report. I waited and let Chuck Crumbo go ahead and write about it, since he gets paid to, and here’s his report. Use that as a baseline.
The panel was the same as this one in 2010, only with Rep. Beth Bernstein in place of Rep. James Smith.
Here are a few random impressions I formed:
First, while I think these annual sessions have been highly informative and fair to all viewpoints, CRBR should probably make an extra effort to get more Republicans on the panel, just to more accurately reflect realities. I wouldn’t take any of the Democrats away; I’d add a couple more Republicans — maybe Kenny Bingham and John Courson, or Katrina Shealy.
Here’s the one thing I Tweeted out during the session:
On legislative issues panel, state Chamber’s Otis Rawl says he doesn’t want lawmakers bogged down in “ancillary issue” of ethics reform…
— Brad Warthen (@BradWarthen) November 20, 2014
Otis wasn’t saying we shouldn’t have ethics reform, but he certainly seemed to regard it as a distraction, as a plate of vegetables with no meat, saying, “I know they’ve got to do this,” but… His tone reminded me of the bank examiner in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Remember George Bailey, all animated, telling him about the fact that his brother is going to the White House to receive the Medal of Honor from the president, and the bank examiner says, without a shred of interest, “Well, I guess they do those things….”
Well, that’s Otis being told about ethics reform. He supposes legislators have to get this ethics stuff out of their system, but he’ll be glad when they’re done and move on from it.
Now in his defense, he sees the urgent need for workforce preparation, infrastructure and other things that bear on our economic well-being, and he should be focused on those things. But he was really a wet blanket on the ethics stuff.
Others were more interested in the topic. Rep. Bernstein predicted that, again, the sticking point will be independent oversight, instead of lawmakers policing themselves. She said that was key, but signaled willingness in a pinch to accept a “hybrid” approach, with some lawmaker participation.
On Medicaid expansion, Sen. Joel Lourie said two things that interested me. First that Christian Soura, the guy Nikki Haley just appointed to replace Tony Keck at HHS despite his never having done anything like that, is a very impressive guy. I’ve gotta meet this guy, if Joel thinks that. Or at the least, hear an elaboration on what impressed Joel. Then, he said he appreciates the position of those who oppose Medicaid expansion because they’re worried about the state having to pay 10 percent of the cost after three years. I usually don’t hear Democrats say things like that.
As Chuck noted in the lede of his report, there was pretty much a consensus that for lawmakers to act meaningfully on paying for roads, there would have to be a lot of pressure on them from outside the State House. Sen. Lourie said there are three kinds of people in the Legislature on this — those who clearly see the need to come up with road funding, those who can maybe be talked into it, and “the not no, but ‘hell no’ group.” Republican Nathan Ballentine said that was accurate, and “The majority in the House, the majority in my party, are in the ‘hell no’ category.” He says he’s not afraid of raising the gas tax, and noted that he voted for the cigarette tax increase awhile back. But getting the rest to go along will take heavy lifting, especially with the governor’s veto threat. There was discussion of raising fees for driver’s licenses. Otis Rawl noted that we only pay about $2 a year for those, and certainly, he asserted, it’s worth more than that for our families to travel on safe roads (and for our goods to get to market, he was quick to add).
It was predicted that roads, ethics and one other matter — reacting to the Supreme Court decision saying the Legislature hasn’t done enough to educate children in poor, rural districts — will dominate the session. The general consensus among these suburban lawmakers was that whatever is done for the poor, rural districts, it not be taken away from the affluent suburban districts. Which to me indicates more money would have to come into state coffers, although I didn’t hear anyone say that overtly.
And of course, more than money is needed. After talking about how bad things are in Marion County, Sen. Lourie said, “Maybe we don’t need three districts in Marion County.”
That caused me to break my rule about not asking questions at such events. I rose to suggest that everyone talks about school district consolidation until it strikes close to home. I agree that there shouldn’t be three districts in Marion County, but I asked, “should there be three districts in Richland County, and five in Lexington?”
He actually had a good answer. As he said, if the state is going to help out Marion County in ways that Richland and Lexington districts aren’t asking it to do and don’t need it to do, then there’s an extra expectation that Marion should do some things it can do on its own — like getting rid of duplicative administration. Rep. Ballentine agreed, saying there’s a much greater imperative to consolidate in districts with fewer students total than you would find in a single school in the city.
Yes, they’re right. The case for consolidation is much more compelling in the rural districts. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a good thing in the big counties, as well.
Anyway, that’s my rambling report…
Ethics reform and these other issues are not unrelated. Some of the most common comments that I hear when there is conversation about raising the gas tax or otherwise increasing roads funding are that the money would probably be wasted. There is too little public trust, a lot of cynicism. I understand this. I grew up with the old SC Highway Department where my father was a bridge design engineer, and I heard some very interesting things over the dinner table. I know that there is still good reason to seriously question the way that decisions are made about how money is spent in South Carolina. If the Chamber of Commerce wants to see the roads fixed, they need to support ethics reform, because there won’t be a major improvement in the public attitude toward paying for infrastructure without reform.
Beth touched on that… she said a tax increase is more palatable if people know what it’s going for.
My natural reaction to that is, “It’s going for ROADS! Sheesh…” But I reckon without that gut-level distrust that so many people feel.
A certain amount of skepticism is healthy. But people thinking a tax for roads won’t go for roads, even ASSUMING that it won’t unless you prove to them otherwise… that is an indication of a serious sickness in the body politic…
There are roads, and then there are roads. I doubt many people think the money would be siphoned away from roads altogether, but they have every reason to fear that it would be siphoned away from road projects (including maintenance) that are objectively a high priority statewide.
Like spending all available funds to build an interchange for an new Interstate freeway which is most likely to never be completed – instead of addressing actual problems like malfunction junction, most of I-95, bridges, etc.
That’s right Mark. And, like extending a highway (at enormous expense in both dollars and environmental damage) to shorten commutes to KIawah, and – more important for some – open up Johns Island for intensive development. The project didn’t even make it to the SCDOT priority list, but it was at the top of the list for a small number of people with disproportionate money and power. In that case, one county councilmen has a very obvious personal financial interest in development on Johns Island, but did not recuse himself from the vote on the project. Legislative leadership PAC money apparently was used to facilitate that same project. Roads and ethical problems have never been far apart in South Carolina.
Nope, they sure haven’t. The story of “path of progress” development is, and always has been, a pretty sordid one – especially in this state with its consolidated and opaque power structure.
Before any tax is increased, we should get more information on the current funding: How much is coming in, where is it going now, what are the top 10 priority projects that would specifically be funded by a tax increase.
After experiencing the closure this summer of a main road that connects US 21 in Blythewood to the Lake Carolina area, I am (as usual) skeptical of the performance of the D.O.T. This project’s purpose was to smooth out a sharp curve that had been the site of many accidents over the years. The original three month schedule turned into six months of re-routing a couple thousand cars five miles out of the way every day — the section closed was within a mile of two schools. We watched this project slowly move along, rarely seeing any workers on site… after the initial deadline was missed, it got extended by the same duration (poor planning, right?)… then, magically, all the work seemed to get completed in the last two weeks. We’re talking about a stretch of road no longer than a quarter mile. Six MONTHS to do that.
Maybe the reason our roads and bridges are “crumbling” is because the people in charge are inept or worse. Why throw more money at them? (I know, this is the same “solution” to fix our schools, too).
Thanks for the good discussion. And yes, our priority-setting in SC is in serious need of overhaul. Which is why I’ve pushed for DOT reform for two decades. I still think it should be a priority.
But I don’t think continuing to starve the system so that roads continue to deteriorate, is a good thing to do while we wait for real reform. We’ve been doing that for too long.
And… while I acknowledge all the problems you cite with priority-setting, the small-r republican in me makes me really reluctant to accept that the public needs to check off on every decision regarding road construction. That seems neither practical nor wise…
We don’t need to “check off” decisions. We need full and open access to the data that drives the decisions and post-project accountability to prove that the money is being spent wisely and efficiently. Open the books and open the prioritization discussions to public view.
Doug – Yes, that is it.