Plan revived to put DHEC under governor

Putting the governor in charge of South Carolina's environmental and health agency is back on the Legislature's agenda after the proposal appeared dead two weeks ago.

A five-member Senate panel voted Wednesday to create a Cabinet secretary position to run the Department of Health and Environmental Control. The governor would have authority to appoint the secretary.

It's part of a compromise that retains part of the agency's current structure. But the vote is significant because it keeps alive a plan for major change at DHEC, an agency criticized for missteps it has made protecting the environment, and to a lesser degree, public health.

Since signaling Oct. 14 that they would drop the Cabinet idea from a DHEC restructuring bill, Senate subcommittee members have been contacted by conservation groups and others who favor putting the governor in charge.

Wednesday's decision sends the bill to the full Senate Medical Affairs Committee and sets up a showdown early next year between the state's powerful business community and a coalition of conservation groups with increasing influence in the Legislature.

Businesses that need environmental permits from DHEC oppose putting the governor in charge, saying the agency works efficiently and is a tough regulator. Conservationists say the agency isn't accountable or responsive enough under its current structure to protect the environment. DHEC now is run by a part-time board and a director the board chooses. The governor picks the board, but has no direct authority after members take office.

"Today's vote was hugely important," said Ann Timberlake, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina. "There was a lot of concern when it looked like the Cabinet proposal would be dropped."

The compromise creates a Cabinet secretary position to run the agency, but retains the agency's existing seven-member board to hear appeals, develop regulations and set DHEC's budget. The proposal is similar to how the state Department of Transportation is structured. The original bill dissolved the DHEC board.

Lewis Gossett, chief executive at the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance, wasn't impressed with the Senate subcommittee's action Wednesday.

"We still are opposed to the idea of putting DHEC in the Cabinet," Gossett said.

Senators cautioned that they may change their minds when the bill comes to a vote in the full committee or the Legislature, but they wanted the DHEC reform proposal to get a get a full airing when lawmakers return in January.

"The various lobbies will be working hard between now and January," said subcommittee chairman, Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens. "They are not going to be able to take Thanksgiving and Christmas off."

DHEC, the state's sixth largest agency, is responsible for protecting the environment and public health. It oversees 150 to 200 programs. Those range from issuing water and air pollution permits to overseeing hospital expansions and tattoo parlors.

Last year, The State newspaper reported on a series of questionable actions at DHEC that prompted calls for a change in the way the agency operates.

The newspaper found that DHEC had difficulty keeping mega garbage dumps out of South Carolina, even though state law didn't intend for that to happen. The newspaper also detailed how DHEC had difficulty regulating coal-fired power plants and oceanfront development, as well as protecting people in residential care homes DHEC regulates. Later stories in The State documented some two dozen legislative contacts in a six-month period with DHEC.

Sens. John Courson, R-Richland, and Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, introduced a bill dissolving the agency's board and creating a Cabinet secretary for health and environment.

South Carolina's fight over whether to put the governor in charge of DHEC is part of a larger, ongoing debate about giving the governor more strength to run state government. Some agencies are directly under his control through a Cabinet secretary, but others like DHEC are run by boards and commissions -- which critics say makes them open to legislative meddling. Efforts to restructure have been slowed this year after a series of troubles suffered by Gov. Mark Sanford, a supporter of a Cabinet system.