THE SEEDS ARE sown; the bases are loaded; the stars are aligned. Whatever your metaphor of choice, we could see some significant progress this year in the Legislature, thanks to the Supreme Court and Bobby Harrell.
And if lawmakers don’t reap the harvest, hit one out of the park or produce the cataclysmic change that a celestial alignment is supposed to occasion, then we will have tested a couple of widely held theories and found them wanting. To wit: that lawmakers continued to neglect our poorest schools for more than two decades because they were waiting for the cover of a Supreme Court order to act; and that lawmakers didn’t overhaul our ethics law, or reform our parochial road-building system, or embrace countless other overdue reforms because they were afraid of invoking the wrath of longtime House Speaker Bobby Harrell, whose reign of terror came to an end in September after his indictment on nine corruption charges.
The high court ruled in November that the state is failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide children in the poorest school districts with an education that will allow them to become productive members of society. Although the court didn’t order a specific remedy, it made clear what many of us have tried for years to get the Legislature to acknowledge, not just when it comes to funding but when it comes to school governance: that local school boards are merely agents of the Legislature, which ultimately has the responsibility to make sure that education is provided.
The court said it would retain jurisdiction until it is satisfied that the Legislature is fulfilling its mandate — which is a huge deal if the court is committed to enforcing its order.
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Mr. Harrell clearly did not want the Legislature to pass a real ethics law — one that requires lawmakers to tell us where they get their money, gives investigators better tools to catch violators, imposes harsher penalties for violations and allows an independent commission to review legislators’ compliance with the law. Indeed, his friends tried repeatedly to undermine the current law, with proposals to decriminalize the provisions he eventually admitted to violating and even to strip the attorney general of the power to investigate legislators.
What has never been clear is how much Mr. Harrell was to blame for the Legislature’s failure to reform that law, and how much he reflected the will of the House. We should get an answer to that — or at the least find out how fearful representatives are of a public backlash if they don’t clean up the system — when we see what they’re willing to pass, and how far they’re willing to push the Senate, now that they have a speaker who seems genuinely to support good-government initiatives.
Likewise, Mr. Harrell very clearly did not want to overhaul a road-building system over which he had outsized control, through his appointments to a State Infrastructure Bank that concentrated our tax dollars on Charleston County projects. It’s safe to bet that other Charleston legislators like that system as well. But what about everyone else?
New House Speaker Jay Lucas has led the fight to replace that system with one that bases road decisions on objective criteria rather than raw political power, gives the governor some actual control of the Transportation Department and gives some input to the Legislature as a whole (as opposed to giving that input to two legislative leaders). That approach is favored by Senate Republican Leader Harvey Peeler and Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen, but without the leverage of a House-passed bill, they haven’t gotten any traction.
Of course, it doesn’t matter what the House passes if the Senate won’t go along with it, and powerful forces in the Senate oppose significant ethics reforms — led by President Pro Tem and Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, with the assist of Ethics Chairman Luke Rankin and most Senate Democrats. Mr. Leatherman and several others also are quite happy with the parochial road-building system. So even if the House votes for reforms, they still could die in the Senate.
But while the Senate is quite good at killing, or simply ignoring, anything a few members don’t like, it has a tougher time doing that to measures that the House really, really wants. And even more so if the public really, really wants them.
So we should have a good shot at improving the education we provide to the poorest children, notwithstanding the decision by Mr. Leatherman and Mr. Lucas to appeal the court ruling, which we can hope is merely an attempt to provide a little more political cover than the court was willing to provide. And the prognosis for reforming our highway-funding system and overhauling our ethics law is greatly improved if Mr. Harrell was indeed the primary holdup. And even if he wasn’t, we still have a better chance as a result of public outrage — to the extent that it exists — over the sorry state of our roads and what we have learned about Mr. Harrell.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.