Editorial: Keep focus on education superintendent

March 12, 2013 

— MOST EVERY study of South Carolina’s government over the past century — and there have been more studies than we can count — has concluded that we have too many statewide elected officials. The reason we have nine independently elected members of the executive branch of state government is to disperse power that should be held by the governor, in order to leave governors impotent.

If we want our government to operate more efficiently, if we want public opinion as expressed at the ballot box to be implemented, if we want the checks and balances the founding fathers envisioned, then we need to do away with several of those elected positions.

At the least, governors should appoint the directors of the state Education, Agriculture and military departments. Beyond that, we’ve never seen any reason to have a secretary of state — whose job is almost literally to act as a filing cabinet — much less to elect that person. Nor are we certain that we need an independently elected financial officer — much less both the comptroller general and treasurer.

But those changes require amending the state constitution, which can’t be done until two-thirds of both the House and Senate vote to put the question on the ballot. And enough legislators long have wanted either to keep the governor powerless or hold those offices themselves, or both, that efforts to put the questions on the ballot have failed for years.

Finally, it appears that the Senate — which has been the ostensible hold-out — might be close to allowing a public vote on letting the governor appoint the superintendent of education.

It is against this backdrop that Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the once and likely future Democratic gubernatorial nominee, has drawn up amendments to add other constitutional officers to the legislation. He doesn’t want to do “piecemeal reform,” he says, because “When you’re reforming state government, you ought to try to have as comprehensive an approach as possible.”

He’s right: It would be wonderful to make all the changes at once. But giving governors more power isn’t like, say, reforming our tax code, which really does need to be done all at once, since each piecemeal change triggers an avalanche of other changes, many unanticipated. We can give the governor a little more power this year, a little more next year, and keep going until, at some point, she has as much power as governors in the other 49 states.

Indeed, the voters agreed last year to let gubernatorial candidates pick their own running mates, rather than electing the lieutenant governor separately. And legislation awaiting a vote on the House floor would let the governor appoint the adjutant general.

The problem with Mr. Sheheen’s proposal is that it is likely to torpedo the best shot we’ve ever had at making the single most important constitutional change, the one that would more than double the governor’s authority.

Every constitutional office has its own constituents, who aren’t about to let voters make it appointive. Some oppose any changes, but others would let governors appoint, say, the education superintendent but not the adjutant general.

While it takes a two-thirds vote to pass the legislation calling a constitutional referendum, it takes only a majority vote to add more questions to that referendum. So all opponents have to do is add enough offices to the referendum, and they increase their numbers enough that they can prevent supporters from getting the two-thirds vote to put the questions on the ballot.

Mr. Sheheen is one of the state’s strongest advocates of empowering governors, so we don’t question his motives. We do, however, question his judgment. By putting his name on proposals that have the very real potential to kill the legislation, he not only does opponents’ work for them; he gives them cover to pretend they support government restructuring while they send it to its death.

Certainly we would support Mr. Sheheen’s efforts to advance separate legislation to make those necessary but less significant changes, and other restructuring advocates should do likewise. But unless he can demonstrate that his amendments will not kill this legislation, he should withdraw them and work instead to get those other couple of votes that he acknowledges are still needed to pass it.

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