WITH ALL THE disappointments — and there were more than plenty — it’s easy to forget how much progress we made or laid the groundwork for in 2014 on important matters of public policy, from making our government more functional to providing a better education for the poorest South Carolinians to narrowing some of the political fissures that are threatening to rip our society apart.
So before we greet 2015, let’s take a moment to consider the big bright spots in the year that is ending.
In January, a quarter century after the idea was proposed and more than a decade after it became a constant drumbeat, the Legislature finally agreed to abolish the Budget and Control Board, the constitutionally offensive panel that gave two legislators equal say with the governor and two obscure statewide elected officials in overseeing a giant central administrative agency by the same name. Although a much less powerful version of the board will remain, the law marked the most significant progress in two decades toward allowing South Carolina’s governor to act like a governor.
And the new law gave our Legislature the tools and mandate to act like a legislature rather than a 170-headed governor. Legislative leaders have been gearing up since summer for their new duties, and in January they will begin a systematic and ongoing review of state agencies, designed to help them recognize problems and opportunities before they become crises, and missed opportunities.
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In April, the Legislature agreed to make our roads safer, by requiring all repeat drunken drivers and the very drunkest first-time offenders to install ignition-interlock devices so they can’t start their vehicles if they’ve been drinking. Lawmakers followed up in June by removing our status as one of only four states with no restrictions on texting while driving; and they passed a complete ban, rather than applying the law only to young drivers, as many legislators wanted to do, at the very most. It’s still dangerous out there, but over time these laws will make it less so.
In May, the Legislature gave the State Election Commission the power to remove incompetent county election officials such as the ones who oversaw the Richland office; the compromise measure also averted a related crisis that threatened to cancel this year’s elections because of the legislative meddling that created constitutional flaws in the county election boards. The new law still allows county legislative delegations to appoint local election commissioners, but it goes so much further than anyone could have dared hope that it might be safe to consider this a job done, at least for now.
In June, lawmakers passed a budget that finally acknowledged that it costs more to educate poor children than their middle-class peers, directing a larger portion of state education dollars to children in poverty. They also directed new funding to provide 4-year-old kindergarten to more poor children, to focus intensely on reading in the early grades and to help supply the hardware and training to integrate modern technology into classrooms. It was an important first step toward providing all children an opportunity to get the education our state needs them to get, and a monumental event later in the year would put our state on track to move from steps to leaps.
The following week, Republican primary voters said yes to rational Republicans who want to make government work, rejecting candidates who vowed to make headlines rather than law and who fixated to conspiracy theories instead of reality. Of particular note were U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s overwhelming defeat of six opponents who tried to paint him as a liberal, and Molly Spearman’s victory in a field of eight education superintendent candidates that was dominated by opponents who were too focused on fighting the Common Core education standards to notice the real challenges our state faces.
In September, Bobby Harrell was indicted on nine corruption charges and suspended as House speaker, ending an era that increasingly was marked by insular politics, dictatorial control and an atmosphere of fear — and a year in which Mr. Harrell’s legal troubles seemed to consume the lower chamber. As much of a tragedy as this was for Mr. Harrell, it allowed the House to make a new beginning with the election of Jay Lucas as speaker, and his promise to bring new accountability and openness, along with his commitment to real reforms to which Mr. Harrell had paid lip service.
In November, voters agreed to put military requirements in place for the state adjutant general and allow governors to appoint future adjutant generals, thus ending South Carolina’s embarrassing position as the only government in the free world that selected the leader of its military based on a popularity contest rather than the meritocracy that has made the U.S. military the envy of the world.
A week later, the state Supreme Court ruled in the 21-year-old Abbeville County School District v. State lawsuit that the state is failing its constitutional obligation to provide children in the poorest school districts with an education that will allow them to become productive members of society. Whether the court was on firm legal ground or not — and I’m still not sure, and may never be — it was clearly right about the problem. And this ruling means that perhaps our Legislature finally will do what it never should have been forced to do: provide all children in this state with a decent education, which is a critical first step to making life better for everyone who lives in South Carolina.
While we still have far to go, we made more progress this year than we have in more years than I can recall. I don’t think I’d say it was a great year in South Carolina, at least not unless I was grading on a hairpin curve. But it was a good year. And that’s worth celebrating.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached