IF YOUR BOSS boss can’t fire you, she’s not your boss. If no one can fire you — or even cut your pay or reduce or increase your responsibilities or in any other way influence your work conditions — then you really don’t have a boss.
The members of the state Transportation Commission don’t have a boss. If the plan approved by the Senate Transportation Committee to “reform” the commission becomes law, they still won’t have a boss. And that’s a problem, a problem that significantly diminishes the benefit of overhauling the commission — and significantly reduces the bang we’ll get for our transportation bucks.
It would be wonderful if we could widen and improve and even build new roads everywhere anyone wanted them. But even if we raised the gas tax by $2 a gallon (legislators are considering 10 to 12 cents), we still couldn’t afford that.
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So it’s essential that we target our limited transportation dollars to our greatest needs. If the road conditions, population density and traffic volume demonstrate that we need more road work in the Upstate than the Lowcountry, then we need a Transportation Department that can devote more resources to the Upstate than the Lowcountry. If we know objectively that there is a greater need for road improvements in urban areas than in rural areas, we need a Transportation Department that is not forced to spend money on lower-need projects in rural areas.
To have that sort of agency, we need a Transportation Commission that makes decisions about which roads to build, improve and repair based on the needs of our state rather than the needs of the regions of our state. Yet a regional vision is almost guaranteed under the current arrangement, whereby each of seven separate groups of legislators appoints one commissioner. That is one reason we’re seeing less impressive results than we ought to from our road funding.
Allowing the governor to appoint the commissioners creates the possibility that they will focus on the needs of the entire state, rather than their regions. It also creates the possibility that we can hold someone accountable for the state of our roads, which simply cannot be done when road decisions are made by people appointed by 170 legislators.
But just letting the governor appoint the commissioners doesn’t guarantee a statewide perspective, and it doesn’t guarantee that the governor can be held accountable for the commission’s decisions. The other essential component is letting the governor fire her commissioners if she thinks they’re making bad decisions.
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Nothing like that is possible with the Legislature’s commissioners. They are appointed for fixed terms and can be removed only if they break the law or can be demonstrated to be guilty of “malfeasance, misfeasance, incompetency, absenteeism, conflicts of interest, misconduct, persistent neglect of duty in office, or incapacity.”
There are a lot of state senators who talk a good game about letting the governor control the Transportation Department, and the bill approved earlier this month by the Senate Transportation Committee gives her that authority. Sort of. But it doesn’t let her fire the commissioners.
If the governor can’t fire her commissioners, then the only way they’ll have a statewide perspective is if the governor somehow manages to appoint people who voluntarily maintain that perspective rather than doing what transportation commissioners always have done: trade votes to make sure their own part of the state gets just as much road work as every other part of the state, even if the need isn’t as great.
The Senate Transportation Committee bill makes it extra difficult for governors to appoint state-focused commissioners, because it doesn’t actually let her appoint the people she wants to appoint: It makes the 10 regional Council of Government districts the new Transportation Commission districts (think Central Midlands Regional Council of Government) and requires the governor to appoint commissioners from a list of nominees submitted by each council.
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Perhaps the councils will shed their parochialism for this exercise, but that’s difficult to imagine, since they exist for the very purpose of looking after their part of the state. To expect them to nominate people who focus on the good of the entire state would be like expecting the governor to appoint someone to a federal transportation panel who focuses on needs of the nation as a whole rather than just South Carolina.
It might be nice to imagine that this would happen, but it’s not realistic.
Gov. Nikki Haley has been quite successful at getting the DHEC board to do her bidding, even though her appointees to that board have this same protected status as transportation commissioners. But the issues before the DHEC board have a lot to do with political philosophy, and governors can always find people who agree with their political philosophy.
The Transportation Commission decides where road money is going to be spent, and absent some intervening force, that has little to do with political philosophy and lots to do with regionalism. And that’s something we can’t afford.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.