Warthen: Hope springs, even in S.C. politics

Editorial Page EditorJanuary 18, 2009 

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.

Depressing.

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/.

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