Scoppe: The reform candidate

Associate EditorSeptember 12, 2010 

SEN. VINCENT Sheheen’s call for a series of high school-style debates with Rep. Nikki Haley, complete with timed constructives, cross-examinations and rebuttals, was a nearly satirical reminder of what a policy wonk he is. So it sounded pretty silly when Ms. Haley’s campaign chose that particular moment to dismiss Mr. Sheheen as “status-quo oriented.”

Wonks come in all shapes and sizes and political stripes. Some are annoying; some are endearing. Gov. Mark Sanford fancies himself one, though he’s actually a bit too ideological to meet the usual definition — an expert with a detailed knowledge of current or proposed governmental policies and their potential effects. This detailed knowledge of how things work, and how they ought to work, tends to produce in wonks an imperative for reform. Which means that the last thing you could rationally call them is “status-quo oriented.”

You don’t have to be a wonk to favor reform, of course; Ms. Haley is no wonk, but she has lots of ideas for reforms — some good, some bad. But with a couple of notable exceptions, Ms. Haley’s reform campaign is just that: part of her campaign. It is not a significant part of her legislative record. It is Mr. Sheheen who has an actual record of introducing, supporting and pushing for reforms, from good-government initiatives designed to make elected officials beholden to their constituents rather than special interests to overhauling what both he and Ms. Haley correctly call our antiquated tax code, to the governmental restructuring that Mr. Sanford would characterize as one of the central efforts of his administration.

Mr. Sheheen has been the most outspoken and consistent Democratic supporter of efforts throughout Mr. Sanford’s tenure to give more authority to the governor; in fact, I can’t think of more than two or three Republicans (and Ms. Haley is not one of them) who have been as consistent in supporting such legislation, and in opposing efforts to weaken the governor. Year in and year out, he has been the primary sponsor of bills to let the governor appoint the education superintendent and the adjutant general and the agriculture commissioner, to abolish the Budget and Control Board and turn its duties over to the governor, to create an inspector general to weed out waste, fraud and abuse; he has even sponsored legislation to create a board of regents to rein in the colleges.

And on bill after bill, the people who have signed on as his co-sponsors have been Mr. Sanford’s chief supporters in the Senate. (In fact, what you’ll notice if you go through Mr. Sheheen’s record is that on numerous fronts, his proposals are ideas that Mr. Sanford also has supported. That’s because most of the reforms our state needs have nothing to do with left or right and everything to do with being willing to question how things have always been done.)

More significantly, Mr. Sheheen is the person who turned the restructuring debate on its head, with the first new approach since then-Gov. Carroll Campbell made it an issue two decades ago: The problem, he argues, isn’t just that governors don’t have the power they should; it’s that the Legislature doesn’t either. His plan is to transform the General Assembly into a body whose members actually understand what’s going on in state agencies controlled by the governor, and who provide the sort of oversight that our state never has seen. Both the Senate and the House have passed his proposal, though not in the same year. It could be that the Senate is just playing games and has no intention of letting this become law, but several Republican senators have told me they’re just waiting for Mr. Sanford to leave office before they do any restructuring. If they do act, it will be because of Mr. Sheheen’s breakthrough combination.

Mr. Sheheen’s other signature reform initiative has involved comprehensive tax reform, which everybody claims to support but which he has actually gotten his hands dirty working on — from the day he arrived in Columbia. What sets him apart not just from Ms. Haley but from just about everybody in the state is that his reform initiatives 1) have actually been comprehensive, and detailed, and balanced, and 2) have always been joint initiatives with Republicans — Reps. Jim Merrill and Rick Quinn, both of whom have served as House Republican leader, and Sen. Larry Grooms, who campaigned briefly for governor as a more conservative alternative to Ms. Haley and the rest of the field.

On spending, Mr. Sheheen has been one of the primary advocates of the wonky-squared idea of requiring the governor and Legislature to write a programmatic budget, which spells out how the programs it pays for work. It’s not as catchy-sounding as the zero-based budget that Ms. Haley rightly advocates, but it likely would accomplish the same goals, and frankly I don’t see how zero-based budgeting could work without a programmatic element.

Among Mr. Sheheen’s other initiatives: When Mr. Sanford’s office rightly raised concerns about how some senators were holding magistrates hostage by keeping them in hold-over status after their terms expired, it was Mr. Sheheen who introduced legislation to take senators out of the appointment process. He also has proposed bills to ban state agencies from hiring lobbyists, to require sponsors to identify themselves on campaign materials, and to prohibit lobbyists from getting around the ban on campaign contributions by “unregistering” after the legislative session ends, making donations, and then re-registering just before the next session starts.

It would be wonderful to live in a state where Mr. Sheheen’s legislative record could accurately be characterized as “status-quo oriented.” Unfortunately, we don’t live in that state.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached

at cscoppe@thestate.com

or at (803) 771-8571.

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