Columbia, SC — TWO YEARS AFTER Gov. Mark Sanford renewed the decade-abandoned idea of abolishing the governor-emasculating Budget and Control Board, Ways and Means Chairman Dan Cooper introduced, and the House quickly passed, legislation that turned the board’s important duties over to a new Department of Administration, allowing governors to control central administrative functions of the government.
Or so it seemed. The bill was long and complicated and tedious to read, but if you took the time to read it, you found that it actually gave the board more power, moved only one of its eight divisions to the new department and, even then, sharply curtailed its discretion. My favorite example of that was a provision that spelled out precisely how many parking spaces the new department had to assign to the House, the Senate, the judiciary and the governor’s office, and prohibited the agency from changing the location of even one of those spaces unless the Legislature amended the law.
That legislation, like the bills the House passed every other year after it, was reform in name only.
The successively stronger iterations of the bill that have come in the past three years were not.
The faux reforms were abandoned in 2011, when Gov. Nikki Haley worked with House members to get the parking spaces and several similarly paranoid provisions stripped out of the legislation. It still was a terribly modest reform, but it really did give governors the power to control some of those mundane duties that governors in other states take for granted.
We all expected this less-than-half measure to die in the Senate, just like all the faux reforms had. Instead, Sens. Vincent Sheheen, Shane Massey and Tom Davis offered an amendment to abolish the board, create a similar entity with extremely limited duties and transfer nearly all of the rest of the duties to a Department of Administration. And the Senate approved it. Unanimously.
No one believed that all 46 senators actually supported the measure, but clearly the mood had changed, and it had changed in large part because of the strategy Mr. Sheheen devised four years earlier, to couple dismantling the Budget and Control Board with a new oversight role for the Legislature, and new powers to carry that out.
Before the bill could make it to the governor’s desk, senators devoted to the status quo renewed their objections to letting governors have a little power, and the libertarian S.C. Policy Council and a handful of fellow travelers in the Senate began beating the “reform in name only” drum. The former was expected, and on Tuesday all of the old opponents gave in and voted for a similar measure; the latter would be laughable if there weren’t so many people who seem to believe it.
I don’t know if the “reform in name only” charge is about retaining a cudgel with which to bludgeon the Legislature or the increasingly popular belief that getting anything less than 100 percent of what you want is defeat that must be fought to the bitter end. Either approach is dangerous and destructive.
As Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin reminded Sen. Shane Martin on Tuesday, when the tea-party senator was trying to derail the bill he said didn’t do anything, “If Governor Campbell had taken the position that you’re taking about the Budget and Control Board, we wouldn’t have the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation; we would still have legislators serving on boards and commissions.”
We also wouldn’t have a dozen other agencies reporting directly to the governor. We wouldn’t have 17 agencies where we used to have 75, nearly all run by part-time boards whose members the governor appointed but could not remove. And we still wouldn’t be able to hold anyone responsible when things went wrong, because no one we voted for would be responsible, or have any way of getting rid of the people who were.
We have all those improvements because Gov. Campbell and our legislators understood that you can’t always get what you want and that governing means compromising in order to get what you need. And now we have the Department of Administration and a Legislature with a mandate to act like a legislature because most of its members — though fewer than even four years ago — still understand the importance of compromise.
This new law does not give governors enough control over our government’s central administrative duties, and it never even tried to let them run the state education department and our military and agricultural and environmental agencies, and so much more. But it is a huge step forward, and Gov. Haley deserves a great deal of credit for building public support for it, and Sen. Sheheen deserves a great deal of credit for coming up with the approach that made the changes palatable to senators, and he and Sens. Massey and Tom Alexander deserve a great deal of credit for getting the votes to pass it.
If you’re keeping score at home, Sen. Sheheen delivered 17 of the Senate’s 18 Democrats, while just 22 of the 28 Republicans voted for the bill. The governor did, however, manage to convince Sen. Bright to stop holding the Senate hostage with his nonsensical charge about reform in name only, allowing the Senate to give final approval to a reform that has been nearly a quarter-century in the making.
And if you’re wondering why supporters were so determined to get a quick vote on the final version of the bill, they were dealing with such animosity toward the idea, on both sides of the aisle, that they were terrified that Gov. Haley would say something in her State of the State address Wednesday night that would offend prickly egos and provoke filibusters they couldn’t get past.
It wasn’t an irrational worry. Asked Wednesday if her address would have been different if the Legislature had not passed the bill the day before, the governor said: “I just wrote it this morning.”
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.