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Forget business. In S.C., it’s always personal

“Forget about business; it’s personal.”

— what Michael Corleone would have said in “The Godfather,” had he been a South Carolinian

EVERY WORD of the following paragraph, which I wrote in 1991 about our state government, remains true today:

Government by personal political connection is a hallmark of the Legislative State, and it finds expression here. Individual legislators protect and support special-purpose districts, and those interested in preserving the districts support the legislators.

Special purpose districts are difficult to talk about to anyone who is not personally involved with them. A quick primer:

Until 1975, county councils did not exist in South Carolina. State legislators ran everything; lawmakers from a given county made all the local decisions that in most other parts of the country would be made by local government. They provided local services such as recreation, sewerage and fire protection with tiny, ad hoc mini-governments called “special purpose districts.” The districts generally did not follow county lines; often there were several for the same purpose within a county.

Even after county councils were formed in the ’70s, lawmakers refused to do away with SPDs, leading in many cases to conflict and duplication, and to confused lines of responsibility (confusing to the average voter, that is; insiders knew how things worked). There are more than 500 SPDs in the state today. No one knows the exact number, not even the S.C. Association of Special Purpose Districts.

The continued existence of these extra little governments, which derive their power from the Legislature, is one of the ways that state lawmakers keep county government weak and ineffective.

If SPDs ceased to exist today (not likely, by the way), some would and should quickly be reconstituted because they address purposes that go beyond the reach of a single county — such as the body that governs the Columbia airport, or Riverbanks Zoo. But most need to be eliminated, and their duties absorbed by elected city and county governments.

Whenever we on this editorial board say this, folks who work for or derive some measure of power from SPDs get very upset with us. They take it very personally. But for us, it’s not personal; it’s strictly business — the business of good government.

In America, we like to say that we have a government of laws and not of men (or of women, either, if you want to be pedantic about it). But our small state’s Byzantine governing arrangements militate in the opposite direction.

I was reminded of this when the head of the state association of SPDs, Mike Hancock, came to visit us last week. His purpose was to let us know that the folks who run SPDs weren’t monsters; his goal was easily achievable because we’ve never thought anything of the kind — we just disagree with them. But while he knew he wasn’t a monster — in point of fact, he seems a very nice man — he apparently wasn’t so sure about us. He admitted to being uneasy, apparently because he did not have a personal relationship with us. To address that, he had brought along his attorney, Jay Bender, who just happens to be this newspaper’s longtime attorney. Personal.

Mr. Hancock did try to establish something of a bond at the start of our conversation, reminding us that several years back when my colleague Cindi Scoppe and I spoke to the SPD association, he moderated, and did his best to prevent us from being ridden on a rail. I had not remembered his being there. The only person I clearly remember by name from that confab was a lady who asked us to do that gig — an old and dear friend of my longtime friend and colleague Lee Bandy. Personal.

At one point in the conversation, we were talking about the fact that under current law, it’s impossible to eliminate one SPD; you’d have to disband them all (which, once again, isn’t about to happen). Cindi noted that this will continue to be the case unless Chief Justice Jean Toal gets another ally on the Supreme Court who believes the state constitution allows the SPDs’ individual dissolution. Personal.

A moment later, Mr. Hancock was expressing uncertainty about his association’s legislative strategy (chief goal: protecting SPDs), noting that with Bill Cotty retiring, he didn’t even know who his own state representative was going to be, which put him at a disadvantage. Personal.

But in South Carolina, Mr. Hancock and his association truly have the advantage in their campaign to preserve SPDs.

It’s like with the adjutant general. Every other state in the union holds to the principle that military officers should be apolitical. But in South Carolina, we elect the head of our National Guard. That is unlikely to change because lawmakers defer to the preferences of Guard members, and Guard members generally tend to be closely tied to their current commanding officer (which is how it works in banana republics; the U.S. military avoids this by transferring officers frequently), who is always totally invested in the system “that brung him” — popular election. Personal.

Similarly, with more than 500 SPDs, there are thousands of people personally invested in their continued existence. This makes for a huge constituency for the status quo. There are, after all, only 46 counties.

Mr. Hancock has nothing to worry about, no matter what we busybodies on the editorial page may say about SPDs. He seems to be a very nice guy, and he’s allied with a lot of other nice folks. And over at our State House, it’s always personal.

For more, please go to thestate.com/bradsblog/.

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