Scoppe: The SC Legislature’s special little governments

Associate EditorDecember 20, 2012 

BY S.C. standards, the byzantine arrangement that produced perhaps the worst election debacle in modern state history — an inexperienced elections director hand-picked by state legislators who thought they reserved unto themselves the exclusive ability to fire her but in fact did not, and might or might not have given that authority to a commission that they also hand-picked and can’t fire, and an elections office over which the county council has absolutely no control but must fund at a level set by an almost certainly unconstitutional state law — is practically a governmental best practice.

After all, there are only 46 of these legislative delegation-controlled/uncontrolled election commissions, each one covers an entire county, and they don’t meddle in anybody else’s business.

For a truly remarkable example of legislative meddling gone mad, consider South Carolina’s special-purpose districts, each of which provides a single service, mostly to tiny segments of the population, most of which are operated by people who are at least two steps removed from even the theoretical possibility of accountability to the public, some of which have been disguised to make voters think they have some say, when they actually don’t.

They are the tail that wags our legislative dog: These legislative creations are among the most potent political forces at the State House, capable of stymieing an array of reforms that would make local government more efficient and effective and accountable to the public. Which they do.

Did I mention that there are more than 500 of these independent fiefdoms? Which means that, when you add them to all the counties and cities and towns and school districts, we have 900 local governments in South Carolina? Talk about fragmentation.

Richland and Lexington counties have 12 special little governments, providing water (four), recreation (three), fire protection (two), watershed management, a zoo and an airport.

Did I mention that in these two counties we have two county governments and 13 municipalities, many of which are perfectly capable of providing all of those services? Or that these SPDs, as they are called, are inherently more expensive than providing the same services through city or county governments?

You couldn’t produce a worse result if you deliberately set out to create a system that wastes money and encourages officials to act against the public interest.

And to some degree, that’s what the Legislature did: The special little governments were born of the legislators’ desire to keep all power — state and local — to themselves, well beyond the time when it was practical to do that.

The Legislature’s special little anachronisms are throwbacks to a time when local governments were impotent and legislators saw to it that services were provided to their loyal constituents. When more services were needed, legislators created special-purpose districts and appointed their governors. These ad hoc origins produced boundaries that seem haphazard today: The districts may encompass an entire county, as with the Richland Recreation Commission, or mirror an urbanized area’s changing boundaries, as with the Irmo Fire District.

In 1973, the Legislature finally allowed the creation of multi-service county governments, which can operate more efficiently and have the added advantage of actually being elected by the voters back home. But it didn’t disband those now-unnecessary governments, some of which constitute huge power bases for the legislators, some of which control the legislators.

Even if legislators were willing, the people who make their living and derive their political power from special-purpose districts weren’t going to stand by while the Legislature allowed county councils to dissolve their districts, because that would reduce their numbers, which would reduce their political clout, which they use for the purpose of … maintaining their political clout.

The SPDs have amassed such power at the State House that they routinely thwart efforts to allow cities and counties to grow in an orderly way, which becomes more of a problem as South Carolina becomes more urban: If counties want to plan their future in a comprehensive fashion, they need the cooperation of the water and sewer districts or fire districts or recreation districts within their boundaries; yet there is nothing to make the districts cooperate. If cities and counties want to consolidate, they have to get the special-purpose districts’ blessing. Cities can’t expand and provide the municipal services that urban residents demand without their blessing, which is not forthcoming.

In 1998, the Legislature finally passed a law that technically allows the districts to disband themselves. But it is wholly — and deliberately — unworkable: 40 percent of the registered voters in a district must sign a petition, then two-thirds of the voters must vote “yes” — which lets one-third plus one thwart the will of the majority.

When the good folks at the Greenville County Recreation Commission decided a decade later that providing the best service to the public at the lowest possible cost was more important than perpetuating their own power, they needed a special law to disband themselves and be subsumed by the county government, because it simply was not possible to use the 40-percent plus 66-percent law.

The other special purpose districts were so freaked at the precedent this could set that they demanded such draconian requirements — the district’s board, county council and county’s legislators all had to approve the change, by a two-thirds vote, and they had only six months and 21 days to get it done, before the law expired — that it never happened.

Did I mention that Greenville County leads the state, with 35 special purpose districts? Spartanburg County is close on its heels at 32. Which makes the 12 in Lexington and Richland counties seem downright modest by comparison. Almost like a governmental best practice.

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

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