Scoppe: New problems, common causes, familiar solutions

Associate EditorJanuary 6, 2013 

— IT’S TEMPTING, in a year like this, to back off the big reforms.

After all, the Legislature has to do ethics reform and election reform and cyber security reform. It has to decide whether to throw away Medicaid money in order to make a political point, and whether to let the video poker barons have their way with our state. Again.

How, you ask, can we possibly demand more?

To which I would respond: How can we possibly settle for less?

We don’t merely face a handful of crises that have sprung up in the past year. We have generational problems, maladies that cry out for more than quick fixes, or tinkering around the edges. They cry out for bold reforms — to our tax code and our budgetary process and our education system — and a governmental structure that is nimble and responsive and accountable and competent enough to carry out those reforms.

The fact that the Legislature has refused year in and year out to give governors the power to govern and legislators the mandate to act like legislators and local officials the freedom to run local government doesn’t make it any less urgent that it do so now. It makes it more urgent.

The fact that we have immediate crises that demand immediate attention doesn’t make it less important to address the underlying pathologies. It makes it more important.

If we had solved these endemic problems years ago, chances are good we wouldn’t have all of these pressing problems today. To varying degrees, every one of the past year’s crises is an outgrowth of our Legislative State — the barely modified 18th century colonial system that is defined by the ability of a small group of legislators to rule South Carolina through an informal network of personal connections.

Legislators don’t recognize how changes to the ethics law might affect the election law because they’re too busy meddling in the operations of state agencies, which ought to be within a governor’s purview, and local matters, which ought to be handled by county councils. Their attention deficit is so severe that they can’t even get the details right when they construct the unconstitutional single-county laws that enable their local-government meddling — as we we’ve been reminded every day Richland County election director Lillian McBride remained in office.

The self-protectionist bent to the ethics law flows from a mindset that legislators are all-powerful, beyond question. If they must be questioned, in order to mollify the great unwashed, it must only be by each other, because, why, they certainly can’t trust anyone else to understand their special sensitivities.

Our 18th century Legislature is fairly good at killing bad ideas. Unfortunately, it’s even better at killing good ideas. Which wouldn’t be a problem if our state were healthy, wealthy or wise. It is none of those things. Lawmakers didn’t slam the door on the resurgent video gambling industry last year because Senate rules allow a few determined senators to lead the entire Legislature around by the nose. Which they did.

It’s too simplistic to say we wouldn’t have suffered the nation’s worst-ever government data breach if our Legislature weren’t so fixated on slashing taxes, although this mindset does reduce the chance that agency officials will think about anything other than how to survive from one crisis to the next.

But by refusing to put someone in charge of information technology — that is, to have a central administrative agency that is empowered to act like one, rather than a place for powerful legislators to hide away such sensitive missions as protecting the flag and naval vessels of the Confederacy — we relegate these crucial functions to second-class status.

If we had a Legislature that focused on setting state policy and providing oversight to make sure it’s carried out well, someone might have raised questions about why the agency that possesses our most sensitive financial information went a year without an IT security chief. If we had a Department of Administration reporting directly to the governor rather than to five independently elected officials, then when the governor realized that computer security needed to be a priority, she could make it so across the entire government.

The Legislative State is a government built around people rather than laws, which means it works well when highly competent people happen into critical positions, not so well when they don’t. But no organization — public or private — can count on having highly competent people in critical positions at all times. As we are repeatedly reminded.

If we continue to ignore our systemic failures, if we continue to reject the obvious solutions, we will continue to have more and more of these crises.

We can’t stand that. We can’t settle for that.

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

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