Columbia, SC — IT’S HARD to imagine doing better if you actually set out to create a government that had so many independent parts that coordination was the exception rather than the rule, a government whose decision makers were so insulated from voters that accountability was a foreign concept.
In fact, that’s pretty much how South Carolina’s government came to be.
After Reconstruction, our Legislature took the state’s traditional approach to governing — keep the governor weak, because you can’t trust anyone with executive power, and let legislators use their personal networks to sort everything out — and put it on steroids.
For the next century, they built on that, creating a byzantine system of boards and commissions to oversee each new agency they created, with different appointing powers (though usually involving legislators) and, more often than not, no formal removal powers. The boards worked together if they wanted to, but generally they didn’t want to, because that might diminish their powers. The power that traditionally goes to governors was divided among these boards and a too-long list of separately elected statewide officers.
And legislators controlled their county governments directly. Even after the Legislature pretended to relinquish that power in the 1970s. Even, to a much greater extent than most people want to acknowledge, to this day.
Finally, in the 1990s, legislative leaders were forced to acknowledge that if this sort of system ever worked, it didn’t any more. They gave the governor direct control over about a third of the government. That was an improvement, but it still left us needlessly hobbled — with too many agencies, working at cross purposes, and no one for the voters or even legislators to blame when things go wrong.
The second step, another two decades in the making, came last month, when the Legislature agreed to create a new Department of Administration, controlled by the governor, to take over most duties of the Budget and Control Board. That’s the uniquely South Carolina institution through which two legislators have equal say with the governor, and with the treasurer and the comptroller general, on such clearly executive duties as allocating office space to state agencies, managing property and intra-agency mail and overseeing the state’s vehicle fleet.
Unfortunately, as important as that change was in allowing our governor to act like a governor, our state is such an outlier that it barely scratches the surface of what must be done to bring us up to even mid-20th century notions of how to operate a government, much less the 21st century.
The path ahead is clear; there are four categories of changes our Legislature still needs to make:
End constitutional officer elections
We need to elect the people who write our laws and have a great deal of discretion in implementing those laws — our legislators and governor and attorney general, and similar local leaders.
But in South Carolina, we also elect the people who run the state departments of education and agriculture and the state military agency — which makes as much sense as electing the director of the prison system or the state library. We also elect the secretary of state, who serves largely as a file cabinet, and the treasurer and comptroller general, whose duties are technical in nature and will be diminished dramatically when the Budget and Control Board goes away this summer.
Electing all these officers dilutes the authority of the executive branch so much that it can’t serve as a check on the legislative branch — thus encouraging parochialism rather than government that plans for the long-term needs of the entire state.
It also reduces accountability, because there’s only so much we as voters can keep up with, so we end up electing people we know little or nothing about. Even if we could keep up, how many of us understand the responsibilities of the comptroller general or treasurer or secretary of state well enough to hire the right person for the job?
Consolidate more state agencies
The 1993 government restructuring consolidated 75 agencies into 17. But that restructuring left so many agencies untouched that even then, we still had more than 100 agencies in the executive branch.
We have 10 that provide health programs, which means a single family can be assigned a half-dozen caseworkers — caseworkers who don’t coordinate, don’t communicate and therefore waste money and even work at cross-purposes. We have six literary and cultural agencies, five separate, uncoordinated agencies that provide public education programs, four that handle jobs and economic development, three that deal with convicted criminals. We have 33 colleges and universities scattered over 78 campuses, all competing for a dwindling share of higher-education funding — ensuring that no institution excels and nearly all do a less-than-adequate job.
Beyond creating duplication, having so many agencies makes it nearly impossible for either the governor or the Legislature to provide adequate oversight.
A new law that takes effect next year should help by requiring the Legislature to review the operations of each agency at least once every seven years, but that job is made more difficult than it should be — and thus will be performed less adequately than it should be — because of the sheer number of agencies that must be reviewed.
Replace boards with directors
Compounding the problem of all of those agencies is the fact that most still are run by part-time boards and commissions. Those boards present the same problem as the Budget and Control Board: When five people are in charge, or seven, or a dozen, no one is in charge.
It’s worse with most of these governing boards, because the members aren’t government employees, and often they have no expertise. This means they are more prone to either make bad and irresponsible decisions or else serve as rubber stamps for the directors they hire — or both.
The governor has the power to hire and fire most of the board members, but as with the overlapping agencies, the number means even the best governors don’t have a clue which board members need replacing at any but the most problematic agencies.
Empower local governments
In the beginning, state senators ran their home counties. Eventually, the Legislature allowed voters to elect county councils to do that, but it has sharply restricted the power of those county councils to levy taxes and regulate billboards and do all sorts of other things that local governments need to do.
State legislators retained the power to appoint important governing boards back home — think county election commissions — and refused to dismantle independent special purpose districts that do things cities and counties ought to do, thus driving up costs to the taxpayers and limiting the ability to coordinate county and city services.
And even though legislators changed the state constitution to prohibit it, they still write laws that apply only to their home counties.
All of this robs voters of the ability to decide how their local communities are governed, and it distracts legislators from their primary job: identifying changes we need to make our state government work better, and then making sure that agencies operate as their laws require.
Making every one of these changes would not obliterate poverty or make us healthier, wealthier or wiser. It would not ensure South Carolinians a smart, efficient, effective government free of scandal.
As we have seen in the past two decades, governors can hire the wrong people to run state agencies, and they can fail to replace those people when they need to. And the Legislature can pass lousy laws. And counties and cities can make terrible use of the powers they have. And the voters can elect the wrong people.
What these changes would do is make it easier for our elected officials to do their jobs, and make it easier for us to recognize who is responsible when they don’t, and to hold those people accountable — which in turn would increase their motivation to do a good job.
The changes would, in short, give us a fighting chance to have a government that does the things that we as a society agree it needs to do, and does them as effectively and as efficiently as possible. Which I’m not so sure the people who created South Carolina’s government ever wanted to happen.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.