Scoppe: DOA Dead on arrival

Associate EditorJune 24, 2012 

IN ONE OF those rare fits of public candor, then-Rep. and later Circuit Judge Jack Gregory once defended his vote against a bill he had introduced by telling his House colleagues, “Just because you sponsor a bill doesn’t mean you support it.”

And as the Senate reminded us yet again on Thursday, just because you pass a bill on a 43-0 vote doesn’t mean you want it to become law. And just because you come back three months later and reaffirm that vote 42-0 doesn’t mean you are willing to do anything to push it over the finish line.

I’ve never been convinced that more than a couple of dozen legislators were sincere in their support of the legislation to abolish the Budget and Control Board, give the governor the tools to act like a governor and give the Legislature the tools to act like a legislature. But by Thursday, as the clock ticked down toward the second mandatory 5 p.m. adjournment of the 2012 legislative session, the bad faith was so palpable that it was difficult to walk through the State House without tripping over the hypocrisy.

Representatives who just two months earlier had warned that it was dangerous to let the Senate push them into giving the governor more power than their 2011 restructuring lite measure had done were now complaining that a House-Senate compromise didn’t give her nearly enough power. Senators did the same, while simultaneously complaining that the reform should be delayed until after the next gubernatorial election so as not to give a sitting governor much more power than voters realized she was going to have.

Which might be a good point if not for the fact that it runs counter to the entire reason we have elections: So voters can choose a candidate whose vision they want to see implemented.

Gov. Nikki Haley’s vision included replacing the anachronistic Budget and Control Board with a Department of Administration that governors would control. So did the vision of her Democratic opponent, Sen. Vincent Sheheen. In fact, we never would have come so tantalizingly close to passing the most important reform measure in two decades if not for Mr. Sheheen’s tireless efforts.

On Thursday, Mr. Sheheen spoke in support of the bill and voted against the (ultimately successful) effort to bypass it and take up other measures. But he also held to his tradition of voting against bringing the debate to an end — which gave his Democratic colleagues cover to do the same, unanimously. That prompted Sen. Greg Gregory to note that if Mr. Sheheen were the governor instead of Ms. Haley, the bill would have passed months ago. Which is almost certainly true.

It’s also true that the Republicans could have forced that vote without any Democratic support; since it was the last day of the session, that took only 23 votes. But the bill never got more than 21, as Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman — the one senator who would have lost power had the bill become law — joined with fellow GOP Sens. Jake Knotts, Billy O’Dell and Luke Rankin to thwart efforts to bring it to a vote.

The bill before the Senate was not the same as the bill the Senate had unanimously approved, twice. But as chief Senate negotiator Larry Martin kept reminding his colleagues, he had gotten the House to agree to every provision that senators told him they had to have. And then on Thursday, they kept coming up with new demands.

When Mr. Gregory asked what had changed since the 42-0 vote, Mr. Martin couldn’t hide his sense of personal betrayal: “I think the fact that we’re on the last day of the session … that’s what’s changed,” he said. “Everything that we were asked to get in this bill from our House conferees, we got. Had I come back with procurement gobbled up the way the House had proposed, I could understand y’all saying I can’t support that. But we got what people said they had to have, and we’re not getting the support people said we’d have.”

Some senators had legitimate concerns about the compromise — heck, I had concerns — and others were genuinely worried about signing off on it less than 24 hours after they had their first look at it. But amending the bill was not an option. Neither was taking more time to study it. The only options were to pass it (as the House ultimately did) or reject it, leaving it to die — or for the conferees to go back to the bargaining table and then try to muster a nearly impossible two-thirds vote in the House and Senate to bring a new version back to life next week. (Reviving it is still technically possible, and it’s what lawmakers ought to do.)

Thursday was driven by hard-core opponents, determined to avoid a straight up-or-down vote on the bill, because they knew that while many of their colleagues wanted it to die, they didn’t have the guts to cast a public vote against it.

And because this is the South Carolina Senate, they didn’t have to.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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