Scoppe: Danger ahead

Associate EditorMay 13, 2012 

REP. WALT McLeod is passionate and smart and a little quirky, and on the day the House finally took up the bill to dismantle the Budget and Control Board, he was at his best.

He reminded his colleagues that he was one of three Democratic co-sponsors of the original bill to turn a little bit of power over to the governor, then poked fun at the girth of the hot-off-the-presses 280-page amendment that proposed to give her a lot of power, suggesting that “if you put this little amendment behind your chair and lean on it, you can absorb it all by osmosis.” He held up the “pretty chart” that explained how the multitudinous functions of the state’s hermaphroditic, quasi-constitutional central administrative agency would be dispersed: “Pink. Blue. Green. Very pretty chart.”

Then, his tone turning ominous, he warned: “ No part of the State Retirement System should be under the Department of Administration with an executive director appointed by the governor.”

“It’s dangerous waters,” he said, his volume increasing, his intensity quickening. “Enormous amounts of money are involved, and when enormous amounts of money are involved, when political appointees are involved, bad things happen.”

He was just getting warmed up. “ Procurement on this pretty chart is under a political appointee. If you’re looking for bad times ahead, I can tell you the dark side of the moon is where you’re gonna go. It is big-time bad, it is big-time bad to have a political appointee in charge of procurement.”

Mr. McLeod was gaining traction until Republican Leader Kenny Bingham pointed out that the original, half-hearted bill that the House had passed 96-13 also gave the governor procurement. At that, the House turned back his warning, and sent a muscular reform bill back to the Senate, which sent it to conference on Wednesday.

But this fight isn’t over. Powerful senators share Mr. McLeod’s fears, and whether the House and Senate can reach a compromise or this bill gets left for dead at session’s end depends on whether those concerns can be mollified.

The fact is that Mr. McLeod is right. The plan is dangerous.

Democracy is dangerous.

It counts on voters to pay attention and not be suckered by smooth-talking politicians, and then to hold bad politicians responsible when they do bad. And if the voters make bad decisions, they have to pay the consequences.

That’s not the way we do things in South Carolina. Terrified of the tyranny of a chief executive with unfettered power, our lawmakers built an entire government around the idea of shielding voters from the consequences of their bad decisions. They diffused executive authority among nine statewide officers, and on to scores of part-time boards over which governors had little if any control, all of which allowed the Legislature to play an oversized role that legislatures aren’t capable of playing, even if they should.

Their piece de resistance was the Budget and Control Board, which gave two legislators equal say with the governor, treasurer and comptroller general in those dangerous matters of procurement, borrowing, land transactions, overseeing a $24 billion retirement system and tending to all the mundane functions that make government work or not work every day.

That system protects us from a corrupt governor intent on rewarding cronies with lucrative contracts and punishing enemies, at the expense of good government.

But corruption takes many forms. Legislators can decide that it’s just fine for them to lobby state agencies and each other on behalf of their employers, and build up their business with clients who need legislative favors. They can draw election districts and set election laws in a way that ensures that the sensible center isn’t represented.

Worse, this paternalistic system never comported with the central ideal of our nation: that the people should be able to control their government.

At least when a governor is in charge, voters have the option of making good decisions.

What can we do when the Budget and Control Board makes bad decisions? We could fire the governor — if she’s responsible for the bad decisions. But what if the two legislators are responsible? Voters in 45 of the 46 Senate districts have no say over the senator on the Budget and Control Board; voters in 123/124 of the state have no say over the representative.

And when the Legislature institutionalizes self-dealing?

When everybody’s responsible, nobody’s responsible.

Instead of living with the consequences of our collective decisions about who our governor is — and, perhaps, over time, learning to make better decisions — we have to live with other people’s decisions about their legislators, over which we have absolutely no control.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com.

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