SENS. TOM YOUNG, Katrina Shealy and Joel Lourie have spent more than a year trying to figure out why the Department of Social Services isn’t protecting the vulnerable children under its care, and how to fix the problem, and they still haven’t gotten there. It has taken so long largely because few legislators have more than a surface understanding of what goes on inside state agencies, so the agencies operate on autopilot, doing what they’ve always done until a crisis develops, and knowledge-deficient legislators rush in to fashion a solution. Then they go back to all those things they do that have very little to do with making the government run well, until the next agency blows up.
It’s not a particularly smart way of running a government, lurching from crisis to crisis, but for legislators, it’s the easy way, the way we’ve always done it in South Carolina.
A new law that kicks in Jan. 1 is designed to change that, to pull us out of the crisis-to-crisis pattern and help lawmakers spot potential problems before they become crises. The law requires legislators to conduct regular audits of state agencies, on a seven-year rotating basis (there are, after all, more than 100 agencies). It was passed in the same bill that turned control of most central administrative functions of government over to the governor, the twin components designed to give the governor the tools and authority to act like a governor and to give the Legislature the tools and mandate to act like a legislature.
House and Senate leaders are both excited and daunted about the task ahead and have spent months hiring staff and gearing up for this huge new mission that should transform what the General Assembly does and how it does it, and make the government work much better. But they are taking very different approaches.
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The Senate will follow the blueprint drawn up years ago by Sen. Vincent Sheheen, which would turn every member of the Legislature into something akin to what Sens. Young, Shealy and Lourie have become on DSS: experts on state agencies, people who have the contacts and trust inside and outside of the agency to alert them at the first sign of trouble.
Each Senate committee will audit the agencies in its subject-matter jurisdiction — the Education Committee reviewing the Department of Education, the Transportation Committee the Transportation Department, and so on. During the course of an audit, committee members not only spot problems but also recognize opportunities.
“My idea all along — and I think Vincent would agree with this — is that we should look at the agency’s mission, how it is implementing the law, whether the law/mission needs to be changed, and the finances of the agency,” said Sen. Shane Massey, the Edgefield Republican who tag-teamed with Sen. Sheheen to get the law passed in 2013.
House leaders decided instead to create a single new committee to conduct all of the audits. In effect, rather than turning 124 representatives into experts on a handful of agencies each, they will turn 20 representatives into experts at auditing state agencies.
It’s an approach that I fear will undermine what for me always has been the most exciting part of the whole restructuring law, but it’s one that acting Speaker Jay Lucas is convinced works better for the House. Rather than each committee applying its own level of scrutiny “depending on the whims of the chairman and the committee members,” he said, having one central auditing panel “promotes efficiency and avoids duplication of effort.”
He also says it eliminates the problem of deciding which committee audits agencies whose mission spans the scope of several committees — DHEC is the poster child for that problem — and notes that having a single auditing committee makes it “much easier for the public to follow.”
Before we talked, I was prepared to urge representatives to reject this approach when they meet this week to organize for the 2015 session and adopt new rules that will, among other things, create the new committee. But while it squanders a tremendous opportunity to improve our legislators, I agree that it has the potential to do a better job of spotting problems. And I’m comforted by the fact that the person in charge of the process won’t be Bobby Harrell, who never convinced me that he was truly committed to injecting accountability into state agencies or improving legislative oversight.
Instead, assuming the House doesn’t make a big mistake this week and elect someone else as speaker, the process will be directed by a representative who has been all about those reform ideas for at least as long as I’ve known him. Someone who acknowledges that there’s a legitimate debate about which approach will work better and who unprompted makes this promise: “If it’s something that we find at the end of the first legislative session is not working, we will reevaluate that. If we run into a problem, it’s not gonna be a problem the next year, because we will fix the problem.”
Time will tell whether the House approach works, and whether Mr. Lucas follows through on his promise if it doesn’t. But for now, I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt. And doesn’t it feel good to be able to say that about a speaker again?
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.