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In South Carolina, we keep talking about the wrong things

We always seem to be having the wrong conversations in South Carolina. Sometimes, we don’t even talk at all about the things that cry out for focused, urgent debate.

Look at this joke of a commission that was assigned to examine whether the city of Columbia should ditch its ineffective, unaccountable, “don’t ask me” form of government. It was supposed to report something two years ago. And here we are, still waiting, with a city that can’t even close its books at the end of the year. Whether its that fiscal fiasco, or the failure to justify what it did with millions in special tax revenues, or the rehiring of a cop who was said to be found drunk, naked and armed in public, there is no one who works directly for the voters who has control over those things.

But as bad as it is to have no one to blame, there is no one to look to for a vision of positive action. A city that says it wants to leap forward into the knowledge economy with Innovista really, really needs somebody accountable driving the process.

Columbia needed a strong-mayor form of government yesterday, and what have we done? Sat around two years waiting for a panel that didn’t want to reach that conclusion to start with to come back and tell us so.

It’s worse on the state level.

What does South Carolina need? It needs to get up and off its duff and start catching up with the rest of the country. There are many elements involved in doing that, but one that everybody knows must be included is bringing up the level of educational achievement throughout our population.

There are all sorts of obvious reforms that should be enacted immediately to improve our public schools. Just to name one that no one can mount a credible argument against, and which the Legislature could enact at any time it chooses, we need to eliminate waste and channel expertise by drastically reducing the number of school districts in the state.

So each time the Legislature meets, it debates how to get that done, right? No way. For the last several years, every time any suggestion of any kind for improving our public schools has come up, the General Assembly has been paralyzed by a minority of lawmakers who say no, instead of fixing the public schools, let’s take funding away from them and give it to private schools — you know, the only kind of schools that we can’t possibly hold accountable.

As long as we’re talking about money, take a look at what the most powerful man in the Legislature, Sen. Glenn McConnell, had to say on our op-ed page Friday (to read the full piece, follow the link at the end of this column):

South Carolina can only have an orderly, predictable and consistent growth rate in state spending by constitutionally mandating it. It cannot be accomplished on a reliable basis by hanging onto slim majorities in the Legislature and having the right governor. The political pressures are too great unless there is a constitutional bridle on the process.

The people of South Carolina elect 170 people to the Legislature. In this most legislative of states, those 170 people have complete power to do whatever they want with regard to taxing and spending, with one caveat — they are already prevented by the constitution from spending more than they take in.

But they could raise taxes, right? Only in theory. The State House is filled with people who’d rather be poked in the eye with a sharp stick than ever raise our taxes, whether it would be a good idea to do so or not.

All of this is true, and of all those 170 people, there is no one with more power to affect the general course of legislation than Glenn McConnell.

And yet he tells us that it’s impossible for him and his colleagues to prevent spending from getting out of hand.

What’s he saying here? He’s saying that he’s afraid that the people of South Carolina may someday elect a majority of legislators who think they need to spend more than Glenn McConnell thinks we ought to spend. Therefore, we should take away the Legislature’s power to make that most fundamental of legislative decisions. We should rig the rules so that spending never exceeds an amount that he and those who agree with him prefer, even if most South Carolinians (and that, by the way, is what “political pressures” means — the will of the voters) disagree.

Is there a problem with how the Legislature spends our money? You betcha. We don’t spend nearly enough on state troopers, prisons, roads or mental health services. And we spend too much on festivals and museums and various other sorts of folderol that help lawmakers get re-elected, but do little for the state overall.

So let’s talk about that. Let’s have a conversation about the fact that South Carolinians aren’t as safe or healthy or well-educated as folks in other parts of the country because lawmakers choose to spend on the wrong things.

But that’s not the kind of conversation we have at our State House. Instead, the people with the bulliest pulpits, from the governor to the most powerful man in the Senate, want most of all to make sure lawmakers spend less than they otherwise might, whether they spend wisely or not.

The McConnell proposal would make sure that approach always wins all future arguments.

For Sen. McConnell, this thing we call representative democracy is just a little too risky. Elections might produce people who disagree with him. And he’s just not willing to put up with that.

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