Scoppe: A half-full take on the upcoming legislative session

Associate EditorJanuary 13, 2014 

— IF YOU THINK of the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions as separate events, there’s no reason to be optimistic about what could happen in the coming six months. Our Legislature has been disappointing us for years, and if last year seemed any different, it was only because it was worse.

But if you remember that they are in fact the first and second halves of a single session, then there is reason for a glass-half-full sort of optimism. Well, as much as anyone who isn’t paid to make sure nothing happens can possibly muster for our Legislature.

•   The General Assembly failed once again last year to send a bill to the governor’s office dismantling the Budget and Control Board and handing most of its duties over to a Department of Administration. The legislation would give the governor a little more room to act like a governor and the Legislature a mandate to start acting like a legislature.

But the House and Senate both passed a bill, and when compared to their similarities, the differences between the two versions are easily within the area where reasonable people can reach a compromise. And one member of the conference committee assures me that the negotiators have come to an agreement — though some of them need to pound their chests in protest for a little longer before they consummate it.

•   The Legislature failed last year to overhaul the ethics law, despite public outrage over its increasingly obvious shortcomings and aggressive lobbying by an unusual alliance of tea-party, libertarian, environmental and left-of-center good-government groups.

But the House got a bill passed that modestly improves the law, and the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that merits a B- and got that bill in position to be first up for debate when the 2014 session opens today.

And in the six months since lawmakers adjourned for the summer and fall, it’s been raining ammunition on reformers. We learned that Gov. Nikki Haley had given herself the power to replace all but one of the state ethics commissioners at once, by leaving six seats in holdover position and two vacant. We learned that she had taken campaign workers along for the ride when her taxpayer-funded security detail drove her to another state to give a purely political speech to an out-of-state political organization.

We learned that Ethics Director Herb Hayden overrode his general counsel’s decision to require the governor to reimburse the state for travel costs, and then told reporters no copy of his attorney’s destroyed letter to the governor existed. Then a copy of the letter turned up.

Meantime, a SLED “inquiry” into claims that House Speaker Bobby Harrell violated the ethics act simmered throughout the off-session until Monday afternoon, when Attorney General Alan Wilson announced he had referred the case to the State Grand Jury.

•   The Legislature failed once again to even seriously consider anything more than tinkering around the edges with public education, instead finally giving in to the incessant efforts to throw public money at unaccountable private schools.

But then last week, Gov. Haley unveiled a school-funding plan that proposes to focus our education dollars on poor students like we never have before. It’s the first effort by a governor in decades to address the fact that it costs more to educate poor children than their better-off peers.

•   The Legislature ignored the problems that were brought to light by the Richland County Election Commission’s 2012 election fiasco, with Richland legislators not even trying to pass another bill to fix the mess they had made when they merged the county’s election and voter registration offices — in effect, refusing to acknowledge that they had created the problem.

But then in August, Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper ruled the merger was part of an unconstitutional single-county law, and the way he wrote the order set the stage for the Supreme Court to not only uphold it but invalidate nearly all of the counties’ election systems.

The result is that several Richland legislators are backing bills that attempt to bypass the constitutional problem with individual county legislative delegations turning control of their election commissions over to their county councils. I’m not sure that the legislation is any more constitutional than the single-county law that’s been struck down, but at least local legislators understand they need to act.

And legislators outside of Richland County finally are starting to take notice: Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin has filed a bill that would turn all county election commissions over to county councils. This solution is far inferior to putting the State Election Commission in charge of the county offices, but it’s far superior to the status quo.

•   Patching the holes in the state’s cybersecurity network was supposed to have been job one last year, after the Revenue Department let hackers make off with Social Security numbers and other sensitive data from 6.5 million current and former residents and businesses, in the nation’s largest-ever cyber-attack on a state agency. Instead, lawmakers simply bought another year of credit monitoring.

But the Senate passed a respectable bill — not a great bill, mind you, but a respectable one — that creates a central authority to set and enforce internet security standards across the government. This would replace a system that leaves that job to individual agency directors, who aren’t experts in cybersecurity and might not want to spend money or adopt time-consuming security procedures to protect our personal data. And House leaders give the clear impression that they just got overwhelmed as the clock ran out, and decided it was better to punt than to pass a bad bill. The implication there is that they’re ready to address the problem this year.

Granted, optimism in this area is more of a stretch than in the others, since the plans representatives floated last year completely missed the point: that we need to empower someone to set standards across government and take over security for agencies that fail to comply, and that this someone needs to be directly accountable to the governor.

But if lawmakers finally can pass the Department of Administration bill, that will greatly increase the chance that they’ll do something productive on cybersecurity, since any central security agency logically would be part of the Department of Administration.

OK, so that’s an even bigger stretch.

But if you can’t have hope, what’s the point of even getting out of bed every morning?

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

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