AS POTHOLES on the interstates threaten to swallow up small cars and the shoulders on two-lane roads crumble into oblivion and capacity on major thoroughfares slows to a crawl, the state Transportation Department is about to embark on its new priorities: prettifying a block of Columbia’s South Main Street and Sumter’s North Main Street and completing other “enhancements” that one transportation commissioner deemed beautification projects in Orangeburg, York and Anderson counties.
All but the small Upstate projects were requested by U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, and the whole package was approved by the S.C. Transportation Commission after it “went back and forth over whether to put the total allocation of $23 million toward six low-priority projects, or toward top agency priorities,” as The Associated Press put it.
The State’s Cassie Cope reports that the only one of the projects that even makes an appearance on one of the Transportation Department’s many priority lists is the one involving Columbia’s eight-block South Main Street. Did I mention that South Main Street runs a total of eight blocks, and is known more as a pedestrian crossing than an artery to anywhere? Which makes you wonder how incredibly unimportant the other projects must be.
The Congress had appropriated $21 million of the $23 million for earmarks in Mr. Clyburn’s district, back when pork was still one of the primary commodities produced by the U.S. Congress; those projects either came in under budget or were canceled, leaving the money available for the Transportation Commission to spend on any projects it chose, as long as they have a 20 percent local match and are located within 50 miles of the original projects. Instead of priorities, the commission chose to go with congressional recommendations.
But let’s be clear about who the bad guy is here: It’s not Mr Clyburn, or at least it’s not primarily Mr. Clyburn. Mr. Clyburn has always been an unabashed defender of earmarks, which I think are a terribly wasteful way to use our resources. But that’s a legitimate difference of opinion, and more to the point, Mr. Clyburn is doing what S.C. congressmen have been doing for generations. He is acting in the finest traditions of Mendel Rivers and Fritz Hollings and yes, absolutely yes, Strom Thurmond. He is doing what Democratic and Republican voters in this state have until recently demanded of their congressmen if their congressmen wanted to remain their congressmen.
The true bad guys here are the members of the Transportation Commission, all but one of whom are appointed by small groups of legislators, through a process that allows all of the legislators to claim that they favored appointing someone else. The commissioners, who can’t be removed unless they break the law. The commissioners, who embraced and adopted Mr. Clyburn’s pork mentality.
The commissioners, by the way, approach their job precisely the way their legislative appointers want them to. Which means that, ultimately, the blame should be laid at the corner of Main and Assembly, in our Republican-controlled Legislature.
Commission Chairman Mike Wooten apparently spoke for all but one of his seven colleagues when he explained that he didn’t think it was fair to ignore Mr. Clyburn’s request since Mr. Clyburn was the one who secured the funding. “I would love to take every penny and apply it to the highest priorities,” he said, “but philosophically we didn’t lobby for that money.”
Translation — and this goes to the very heart of why South Carolina’s congressional delegation has traditionally made its living off pork-barrel funding and why it’s such an awful idea: When a congressman cuts deals to get funding delivered to South Carolina, that money becomes his money, as though he had written a personal check for it. If some of it is left over, he should decide how it’s used, and we ought to be grateful to him for sharing it with us.
It’s worth noting that the one commissioner who voted against this mindset was Clifton Parker, who also is the one commissioner appointed by the governor.
Finally, this year, the Legislature voted to let the governor replace Mr. Wooten and his six pork-enabling colleagues with her own appointees to the commission. Sort of. Maybe.
As long as she picks people legislators like.
Although S.1258 does end the practice of having each district transportation commissioner appointed by the legislators who live in a given congressional district, those groups will have veto power over the governor’s appointments. Worse, they can exercise their veto under cover of darkness: If they don’t vote to approve within 45 days, the new law says, “the appointee is deemed to have been disapproved.” Appointees who are not disapproved still must get through a joint legislative screening committee and be confirmed by the Senate.
House leaders have vowed to eliminate the delegation-approval process, at the least, before they allocate any more money to the Transportation Department. But if they fail, here’s what has to happen: The governor has to abandon the Columbia tradition of keeping quiet about such things.
If legislators block her appointments, the governor has to call them out, the same way she called out perceived enemies in this year’s Republican primary elections.
Otherwise, we’ll never get past the pork-barrel mentality that has always pervaded, defined, even, our road-building system.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.