Scoppe: And you thought 2013 was a bad year in Washington?

Associate EditorDecember 31, 2013 

Cindi Scoppe

— WITH ALL the talk about what an awful year 2013 was in Washington — from the do-less-than-nothing Congress to the meltdown of Obamacare — I’ve been trying to come up with something to celebrate closer to home.

I’ve not been particularly successful.

Oh, you could find a handful of accomplishments — if you have small hands. Topping the list: Two years after gambling interests convinced a few gullible judges that a law allowing McDonald’s sweepstakes games also opened the door to slots and video poker, the Legislature finally rewrote it to make it extra clear that it doesn’t make legal that which other laws make illegal.

Legislators also responded to the 2012 ballot purge by requiring incumbents and challengers to follow the same election filing law and, more importantly, stripping political parties of the power to act as state officials, collecting filing papers whether they know what they’re doing or not.

Locally, the Columbia City Council finally agreed to tackle homelessness, opening an around-the-clock emergency shelter. Of course, there are significant questions about how much good it will do, and what will happen when Christ Central Ministries decides to stop underwriting it. But this marks the city’s first real effort to fix the problem, rather than making it worse, as it always has seemed determined to do in the past.

The rest of the accomplishments are much more heavily caveated.

Robert Ford joined the yin to his yang, Jake Knotts, in becoming an ex-senator — thanks not to the voters but to his own illegal purchases with his campaign finance account. But that only strengthened senators’ resolve to not reform an ethics law that has been exposed as a self-protection racket for the political class. And that’s precisely what they did: Not pass it.

It was the House that managed to not pass legislation to create a central authority to set and enforce information-technology security standards across the government. Such legislation, a barely adequate version of which the Senate did pass, would replace a system that allows scores of independent, often unaccountable, agencies to decide whether and how to protect our personal data. The need for which had been made painfully obvious in late 2012 when the Revenue Department allowed computer hackers to break into its ill-secured data system and lift the unencrypted Social Security numbers and other sensitive data of more than 6.4 million South Carolinians.

A Circuit Court judge struck down the patently unconstitutional law that merged the Richland County elections and voter registration offices. That’s the law that set the stage for Lillian McBride to run what likely was the most bungled election in modern state history, deploying too few voting machines while more sat unused in a warehouse, forcing thousands of voters to endure waits of up to seven hours, while untold others left without casting a ballot. But the order was put on hold pending an appeal, which allowed the unaccountable board to oversee a follow-up mangling this fall, when the office failed to count more than 1,100 absentee ballots.

State legislators, however, showed no significant interest in making the election board accountable to someone, either the County Council or, preferably, and in all counties, the State Election Commission.

Even when Columbia officials finally signed an agreement with Greenville developer Bob Hughes to transform the old State Hospital on Bull Street, the City Council managed to undermine public support for this once-in-a lifetime opportunity, rushing through a poorly vetted plan on a divided vote in an all-night meeting and including a promise to spend public funds building a baseball park. A baseball park.

Columbia lost another police chief, and before rookie city manager Teresa Wilson got around to launching a search for the eighth person to lead the department since 2007, police arrested state NAACP Chairman Lonnie Randolph — knocking out some of his teeth in the process — apparently for the crime of having a diabetic reaction in a public place. The city thereby sent the message to diabetics that we should endanger our lives by keeping our blood-sugar levels high enough to avoid any chance of winding up in the same situation.

Ms. Wilson responded to the arrest by traipsing down to the “crime” scene for reasons I still can’t figure out any conceivable way to justify, raising the specter of political interference in the case. City Council members responded by rejecting Mayor Steve Benjamin’s proposal to bar them and their employees from meddling in police investigations. And we wonder why city officials can’t deal effectively with high-profile crime in Five Points, and across the city.

Supporters finally got a question on the ballot about allowing the mayor to run the city, but it was rejected resoundingly by a campaign that argued that voters should support the “professional” manager system, under which their council members pull strings at city hall. Which is illegal.

Efforts to let the governor act like a governor and require the Legislature to act like a legislature fared no better. Even though the Senate passed legislation in record time to dismantle the Budget and Control Board and turn most of the state’s central administrative duties over to the governor, and even though practically everybody at the State House claims to support the legislation, the House slow-walked it long enough that lawmakers were able to end yet another session without getting it to the governor’s desk.

Meantime, the defund-the-public-schools crowd finally won a legislative victory, as senators agreed to throw public money at private schools. This was in return for a small increase in funding for the 4-year-old kindergarten expansion that a Circuit Court judge mandated eight years ago in the landmark school-equity lawsuit.

Four months later, with no equity in sight, Columbia attorney Steve Morrison, the chief litigator for the impoverished school districts that brought the suit against the state a generation ago, died suddenly. It was just days shy of the lawsuit’s 20th anniversary.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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