January 12, 2014

Editorial: Prescription for 2014 SC Legislature: reform, reform, reform

SOUTH CAROLINA is blessed with a temperate climate and abundant natural resources, from our sparkling white-sand beaches to our majestic mountains. But we also have a government that diffuses accountability and encourages redundancy and just can’t seem to shoot straight — except when it’s aiming at its foot.

SOUTH CAROLINA is blessed with a temperate climate and abundant natural resources, from our sparkling white-sand beaches to our majestic mountains. But we also have a government that diffuses accountability and encourages redundancy and just can’t seem to shoot straight — except when it’s aiming at its foot.

We have warm and welcoming people, and the most tourist-friendly city in the world. But we also have a special-interest-driven tax system and a budgetary process that encourages us to overspend on things that don’t work and under spend on things that do.

We have strong anti-union laws and a technical-college system that stands ready to train people to work for any industry. But we also have an ethics law that encourages pay-to-play politics.

We have up-and-coming research universities and a budding knowledge-based economy. But we also have a public education system that isn’t educating all of our children, too often because it isn’t really trying to.

For all our opportunities to grow and prosper, to attract enough world-class jobs and to entice our best and brightest to make this their home, we seem determined not to kick our self-imposed stumbling blocks out of the way.

No matter how well our legislators address the crises du jour — and really, wouldn’t it be nice if they would address the crises du jour, or even the crises of last year? — our dysfunctional governmental structure, incoherent tax system, inability to spend money well, lack of focus on education and corruption-enabling ethics law will continue to hold us back until legislators address them. Indeed, these reforms would make it much easier for the Legislature to address all those new problems that pop up every year. It might even prevent some of them.

So we begin another legislative session with a familiar agenda: Reorganize our government. Overhaul our tax and budget systems. Create an education system that educates all of our children. Inject ethics into our ethics law.

Start with structure

The session begins with House and Senate negotiators wrangling over differences in their plans to dismantle the constitutionally offensive Budget and Control Board, which gives two legislators equal say with the governor and the treasurer and comptroller general on such clearly executive duties as allocating office space to state agencies, managing state-owned property and inter-agency mail and overseeing the state’s vehicle fleet.

Committees are great for making laws, awful for administering them: When five people are in charge, no one is in charge, and no one is accountable. So the legislation gives nearly all of the responsibilities of the Budget and Control Board to a new Department of Administration, controlled by the governor.

It also transforms lawmakers’ primary job from writing laws to providing oversight of how executive agencies administer those laws. Thus it gives greater power to both the governor and the Legislature — and makes it more difficult for either to shift blame or shirk their responsibilities.

It’s not the only change we need to make our government coherent: We need to consolidate more of the 70 state agencies, and replace nearly all of their autonomous, part-time boards with directors who answer to the governor. We need to eliminate most of our separately elected constitutional officers. We need to let county councils run county governments.

But this bill goes a long way toward allowing our governor to act like a governor and requiring our Legislature to act like a legislature, and there is absolutely no reason that the relatively minor differences between the House and Senate versions should block its passage yet again.

Repair flaws in ethics law

Ethics reform isn’t as far along in the legislative process, but there’s even less excuse for failing to get it done, the need being so glaringly obvious.

Our part-time legislators don’t have to tell us who pays them. Our conflict-of-interest law is so convoluted that many can hide where their personal interests conflict with ours, and they do. We don’t even have a good handle on who’s bankrolling their election bids.

Legislators police their own compliance with the law, through House and Senate committees that only recently have begun to make some of their activities public — and they’ve done that through internal rules, which means they undo it at a moment’s notice.

All this makes it easy for legislators to logroll their positions into personal profit, as then-Rep. Nikki Haley did when she accepted one position for what her employer said was her “good contacts” and another, created for her for her “excellent contacts,” with a hospital that needed her legislative support. Or as House Speaker Bobby Harrell did when he used his official letterhead to ask a state regulatory agency to help his business. Just to name a couple.

When our lawmakers are looking out for their own interests, they aren’t looking out for ours. And when we don’t know what their personal interests are, we can’t even recognize the problem.

Educate everyone

It costs more to educate a poor student than a wealthy or middle-class student, yet poor school districts have less money to spend per student than wealthier ones. No one who is serious, in either party, disputes this. Yet our Legislature has shown no interest in fixing it, because that costs money, and much of the money would go to rural and inner-city school districts that are not represented by Republicans, who have controlled the Legislature and governor’s office for more than a decade.

For that matter, lawmakers haven’t shown much interest in taking other actions that would improve education: creating a reward system that will attract the best and brightest teachers; empowering principals to retain the best and remove the worst; ensuring state intervention when principals or administrators or school boards fail to get the job done; finding better ways to engage parents — or work around them.

Then last week, Gov. Haley unveiled an education-reform initiative that she calls her top legislative priority for the year. It has other bells and whistles, but the central component is adding what’s called a “poverty weighting” to our primary school-funding formula. That would provide schools with extra money for each poor student, and it has been part of every serious education-improvement proposal in our state for decades, because our inequitable funding has been our central problem in education for decades.

We can’t judge the specifics of this plan until the governor releases her full budget proposal on Monday, but even if they find problems that need correcting, legislators can call this a good year if they move forward on the concept.

Tax and spend more smartly

The governor says she pays for her education initiative by using natural revenue growth and setting priorities. That is entirely conceivable, because of our budget process: Lawmakers assume that the way we’re currently spending money is really smart and do it again. If we have more money, they spread that around in a way that will get enough votes to pass.

Lawmakers never step back and ask difficult questions about which programs are working well, which would work well with more support and which are simply draining money we can’t afford to spend.

They likewise have not stepped back to think critically about how we tax. If they did, they would see that some taxes are too high, some are too low, nearly all are filled with loopholes that don’t serve our values, and many are based on outdated economic assumptions.

Of course some loopholes support legitimate state interests, and changes that might seem sensible in a vacuum in fact create problems elsewhere in the tax code. That’s why legislators must stop making changes in a vacuum, as they have done to detrimental effect for decades, and instead reform the tax code.

The solutions to our systemic problems are not elusive. What they are is politically difficult. They are problems that our legislators choose not to solve. They require our legislators to abandon the idea, present from the birth of our state, that state legislators are all-knowing and therefore must remain all-powerful.

We never could afford such an arrogant attitude toward governance. We must no longer accept it.

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