January 6, 2013

Editorial: Current crises, systemic flaws demand legislative action

THINK OF South Carolina as the proverbial frog that sits contentedly in the pot of increasingly warmer water until it eventually boils him.

THINK OF South Carolina as the proverbial frog that sits contentedly in the pot of increasingly warmer water until it eventually boils him.

The problems that plague our state have been present for so long, and have been worsening so gradually, that we don’t even recognize them as problems: a governmental structure that diffuses power so no one can wield it to the public good; a loophole-riddled tax system that can’t meet our needs, much less our wants, and a budgetary process that can’t distinguish between the two; an education system that can’t educate all of our kids, and a political system that refuses to make the obvious improvements to that system.

But occasionally, the temperature spikes, and we recognize that a crisis is brewing.

Over the past year, we’ve had a confluence of crises, which have jolted the public from its stupor and eaten away at what little confidence remains in our government:

•  250 legislative and local candidates were kicked off the ballot because no one noticed that a new law requiring economic-disclosure statements to be completed online did not eliminate the old law that required non-incumbents to turn in paper copies when they filed for office.
•  The ethics law was exposed as a self-protection racket for the political class, as a lieutenant governor was convicted for disguising his own money to make voters think he was more popular than he was, while legislators confirmed that there was nothing illegal about a House member turned governor parlaying her political position into jobs for which she was questionably qualified.
•  Computer hackers broke into the ill-secured data system of the state Revenue Department and lifted the unencrypted Social Security numbers and other sensitive data of more than 6.4 million South Carolinians, in the nation’s largest theft of government data.

 Voters got schooled in the byzantine ways of the Legislative State after the unaccountable office that runs elections in Richland County deployed too few voting machines, a number of which were broken, forcing thousands of voters to endure waits of three, four, even seven hours, while untold others left without casting a ballot. The Election Day fiasco was followed by a string of discoveries of uncounted ballots and weeks of political gamesmanship, as the legislative delegation that wrote the unconstitutional law overhauling the office first insisted that only it could fire the director and then acknowledged that its law reserved that power to an obscure board whose members it could not remove and who never did take any action, other than to not block the director’s long-delayed resignation.

•  Video gambling interests sold several judges on a ploy to revive their outlawed industry, aggressively deployed their illegal machines in convenience stores and new “internet cafes” and resumed their old strategy of making generous campaign donations to politicians, who thwarted efforts to close what might be a loophole in the law.

Add to all this the politically charged question about whether to invest $1 in state taxes in return for $9 in federal revenue to pay for medical care for poor people whose care we’ll pay for with or without that federal funding, and the Legislature has a full plate of must-address-right-now problems to deal with in the session that convenes on Tuesday.

And it must.

Confront the crises

The 2013 General Assembly must overhaul our ethics law to require meaningful disclosure of politicians’ potential conflicts of interest, from the sources of their income to the sources of campaign spending, and to create an independent system for policing legislators’ compliance with the law; and it must replace the loopholes in our open-government law with a robust set of teeth.

It must fix the candidate filing glitch (a simple matter that it somehow managed not to do last year), get the political parties out of the business of collecting paperwork from candidates and get the unaccountable local election boards out of the business of running the state’s elections. It also needs to get itself out of the business of meddling in those local matters that truly are local matters — from maintaining its own special little single-service governments that compete with county governments to writing laws (already prohibited by the constitution) that apply to only one county.

It must empower a centralized information technology office to set and enforce standards for cyber security, purchases and protocol across state government — and that centralized office ought to be part of a Department of Administration controlled by the governor, rather than the Budget and Control Board that’s controlled by five separately elected officials. It also must make whole the 6.5 million S.C. citizens and businesses — including minor children of many hacking victims — who now face an exponentially increased lifetime threat of identity theft.

It must close what some judges consider a loophole in the state’s anti-gambling law — another simple matter that it failed to address last year — before the poker barons again are able to grow rich and powerful enough to take out lawmakers who dare stand in their way.

And it must make a rational rather than a political decision about whether to treat Medicaid as the investment that the Congress has (perhaps unwisely) turned it into or as an opportunity to continue a self-defeating fight against Obamacare.

But it mustn’t stop there. Addressing the crises of 2012 merely returns us to the status quo ante. And the status quo ante was wholly inadequate.

Resolve root causes

Although our state has tremendous potential, abundant natural resources and good, hard-working people, we have never figured out how to leverage our advantages to our advantage.

Our tax system is a cobbled-together paean to special interests, more loophole than coherent whole. Yet rather than creating a system of taxation that covers as large a swath of our economy as possible, at the lowest possible rate, that is balanced for stability and fairness, that will promote rather than hinder our state’s most important goals, the Legislature keeps creating more loopholes and cutting more and more taxes.

Our budget-writing process sets priorities by default and results in underfunding crucial services while continuing to spend money maintaining the skeletons of programs that are useful but not essential. Topping the underfunded list: public education.

We are caught in a vicious cycle: We’re poor because we don’t have enough good-paying jobs; we don’t have enough good-paying jobs because we don’t have a sufficiently educated workforce to fill them; we don’t have a sufficiently educated workforce because we don’t invest our resources smartly enough to adequately educate our workforce.

We need tax, spending, regulatory and social policies that will provide all children in this state with the opportunity to get a good education, so they can lead full and productive lives and be the kind of employees that businesses want to hire.

We devote all of our energy to fighting bad ideas and ignore the changes we need: a reward system that will attract the best and brightest teachers; tools for principals to retain the best and remove the worst; sure state intervention when principals or administrators or school boards fail to get the job done; intensive programs for students who aren’t learning; better ways to engage parents — or to work around them.

We need our Legislature to start acting like a legislature — overseeing the way state agencies implement the laws it passes, rather than micromanaging them — and to let our governor start acting like a governor and to get out of the way and let our county councils start running our counties.

And we need that this year. Before the failed system of government that we have creates the next round of crises.

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