Cindi Ross Scoppe

March 19, 2013

Scoppe: Wanted: 3 Senate votes for accountable government

How do you explain the Senate’s near party-line defeat of legislation to allow future governors to appoint the person who oversees 40 percent of our state’s general tax funds, the superintendent of education? Not in any good way.

THE IDEA of making the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government equally powerful, and thus able to serve as checks on each others’ excesses, is foundational to our nation’s government, embraced for two centuries by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Of course, South Carolina barely even paid lip service to the idea of checks and balances, instead vesting all power in the Legislature and dividing executive power among nine separately elected statewide officials and scores of independent boards and commissions — and you see where that got us — until the 1990s. That’s when then-House Speaker Bob Sheheen, Judiciary Chairman Jim Hodges and Ways and Means Chairman Billy Boan decided to champion then-Gov. Carroll Campbell’s call to let governors control part of the executive branch. Mr. Campbell’s excellent idea would have been still-born if not for the work of those legislators, all Democrats, one of them our last Democratic governor.

Today the idea of finishing the job begun by Mr. Sheheen et al has no more articulate standard-bearer than his nephew, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the Democrats’ 2010 and likely 2014 candidate for governor.

But if you spend much time watching the Legislature, you’d think the idea of empowering governors with nearly as much power as our Legislature was part of a Republican plot to steal whatever shards of power S.C. Democrats still possess.

How else to explain the Senate’s near party-line defeat on Wednesday of legislation to allow future governors to appoint the person who oversees 40 percent of our state’s general tax funds, the superintendent of education?

Democrats objected that there ought to be some minimum qualifications for an appointed superintendent — which almost sounded like a legitimate complaint until they proposed qualifications that a recent, extremely successful Democratic superintendent wouldn’t have met. And even after Republicans joined with them to sweep aside Senate rules and traditions to put separate legislation spelling out qualifications on a vertigo-inducing racetrack — it was written on Tuesday afternoon, heard in subcommittee Wednesday morning, unanimously yanked out of committee and given key approval in the full Senate on Wednesday afternoon — all but three Democrats still voted against the plan to bury the 18th century tradition of holding public elections for superintendent of education.

Twenty-eight of the 46 senators supported the legislation (S.53) to call a referendum to amend the state constitution, but it needed 31 votes, which means it needed bipartisan support.

The three Democrats who voted to ask the public to let governors appoint the education superintendent — Sens. Sheheen, Joel Lourie and Thomas McElveen — understand that good government is good government, and something worth pursuing, no matter which party might benefit at the moment.

They understand that when the voters elect a governor, they expect that governor to be able to implement the laws passed by the Legislature, which is what the education superintendent and all of those other agency directors are there to do.

And perhaps they realize that it’s good politics as well. South Carolina’s governor can’t be held responsible for how well our schools perform, because she has less influence over them than an individual state senator. Less, even, than a House member. All she can do is veto bills.

Put the governor in charge of education, and general-election voters — who tend to value public education more than do Republican primary voters — just might hold her accountable if she picks an unqualified superintendent, or one who refuses to apply for federal education grants, or who seems to go out of his way to provoke fights with teachers. Indeed, there might be no policy change that would do more to help Democratic candidates for governor than this.

Not that that is any more legitimate a reason to support it than Democrats’ quaint belief that they are likely to win back the superintendent’s job in an election.

Sens. Sheheen, Lourie and McElveen weren’t the only senators to break party ranks. Republicans Hugh Leatherman and Billy O’Dell voted against the referendum, and Republican Sen. Luke Rankin was absent. Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin changed his vote to no at the last minute, but only in order to perform a technical maneuver that allows him to bring the legislation back up for another vote.

Senate leaders told me Wednesday they never would have taken the vote on if they hadn’t been certain they had the support of all 27 Republicans who were present and a fourth Democrat. They blamed their own vote counters — and their chief counter, Sen. Shane Massey, was more than a little chagrined — as well as the three senators whose votes surprised them. They also complained that Gov. Nikki Haley hasn’t been nearly as engaged in this effort as the effort to dismantle the Budget and Control Board.

Fortunately, they get another chance — although there’s not much use in trying until they turn some votes. If Mr. Rankin supports the legislation, we’re still two votes short of the two-thirds mark.

So if your senator voted no — that is, if your senator is Hugh Leatherman or Billy O’Dell or any of the Democrats other than Sens. Sheheen, Lourie or McElveen — now would be a good time to let him know you want a government that makes sense. A government where the executive is a co-equal with the Legislature. A government where we can hold our governors accountable for what happens in our schools, rather than handing that task over to a down-ballot race that gets lost in the excitement of a gubernatorial race.

And if that qualifications bill (S.521) is the price reformers have to pay to get the other three votes, they need to fix it, because it’s deeply flawed — which should be no surprise, given the rush job. It gives governors too little leeway on whom they could appoint — the president of Clemson University, for example, would not qualify for the job, because he doesn’t have a graduate degree in education or public policy or a law degree.

Worse, it withholds from governors the authority to fire their education superintendent. That means that, once appointed, the head of the state’s largest and most important agency wouldn’t work for the governor — or for anyone else. Sort of like the current situation.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at or at (803) 771-8571.

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