Editorial: SC can’t afford to lose Courson’s leadership in Senate

October 23, 2012 

WE DON’T buy the parochial notion that voters in Senate District 20 should re-elect John Courson because his new role as president pro tempore is good for the district and for the Midlands, which has gone a century without a legislative leader. They ought to re-elect him because having him in the Senate’s top post is good for our state.

They ought to re-elect the Richland County Republican because, at a time when the governor and House speaker and the chairmen of the House education and budget committees all want to throw tax dollars at private schools, it’s important to retain a Senate Education Committee chairman who believes we need to fund and improve the schools we own.

They ought to re-elect Mr. Courson because, with a governor and House leaders who seem convinced that any efforts to protect the environment amount to nothing more than burdening businesses, we need a leader of the Senate who is a conservationist — a conservative who believes in conserving our environmental resources, which also are important economic-development resources.

They ought to re-elect him because anyone who can win the support of such diametrically opposed entities as the S.C. Education Association and the S.C. Association of Taxpayers, the Conservation Voters of South Carolina and the S.C. Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Businesses obviously knows how to balance education and the environment and economic development and low taxes.

Democratic challenger Robert Rikard is a smart, attractive candidate, who supports government restructuring, rational tax policy, ethics reforms and the sort of public-education agenda that too many would-be ethics reformers oppose. He’s right when he says there’s something moribund about the Legislature.

He says he could be effective as a Democrat in the Republican-controlled Senate because “there is a willingness to compromise at least when it’s a good idea.” But the reason that atmosphere still exists is that traditional Republicans have held the line against the new Sanford-Haley breed of no-compromise libertarians who would rather make a statement than run a state. Among the most important of these pragmatic, traditional Republicans is Mr. Courson, who was elected president pro tempore this spring by a third of the Senate’s Republicans and all of its Democrats.

Mr. Rikard doesn’t so much disagree with Mr. Courson on important issues as believe that Mr. Courson is not doing enough. He overstates the case — counting the number of bills Mr. Courson introduced, for instance, while ignoring the crucial role he plays in getting other legislators’ good bills passed, and in blocking bad legislation.

But Mr. Rikard is right in suggesting that with a district that is so supportive of education, the environment and ethics, the senator ought to more aggressively advance those causes that so clearly are his priorities. Indeed, Mr. Courson’s agenda for the coming term is modest: Clean up the state’s ethics law, and abolish the Budget and Control Board.

Mr. Courson does support smarter tax policy, better funding and more innovation in the public schools, empowering the governor and local governments, but he doesn’t expect much progress; even on the environment, his main goal is to continue to kill bad proposals. All of which is probably realistic but also feels a bit like weariness.

That doesn’t mean voters ought to replace Mr. Courson. They shouldn’t. It does mean, however, that he ought to take that critique to heart in the next four years. He has a supportive district, and a tremendous amount of power to control the legislative agenda. He needs to make the most of it. For all of us.

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