Politics & Government

Governor should control DHEC, senators say

Two state senators offered a plan Tuesday to put the governor in charge of South Carolina’s health and environmental protection agency after years of complaints about the department’s ability to limit pollution, preserve the landscape and protect public health.

The governor would appoint a cabinet secretary to run the 36-year-old Department of Health and Environmental Control — rather than have the agency overseen by a part-time board, as it is now, according to a bi-partisan bill introduced by Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter.

Some legislators and interest groups already were speaking against the bill Tuesday — including, in a surprising turnaround, South Carolina’s biggest business associations. They said DHEC is being criticized unfairly.

But Leventis and Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, said putting the governor in charge will make DHEC more effective. In addition to making it a cabinet agency, their plan adds an environment board and a health board to hear challenges to staff permits.

“The intent is to bring ... accountability to DHEC that it doesn’t have now,” Courson said.

The bill, similar to one introduced in the House, drew praise Tuesday from Gov. Mark Sanford and Republican Attorney General Henry McMaster.

“We think it would be a big step forward,” Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said. “With all due respect to the current (DHEC) board, anytime there is a layer between the governor and the director, accountability is not at its optimal level.”

Leventis and Courson began working with conservation groups on the bill after The State newspaper reported in November about missteps at the agency. Through the years, DHEC has had difficulty stopping mega-landfills that import out-of-state waste, controlling air and water pollution and limiting beachfront development at a time when sea levels are rising, The State reported.

Many of DHEC’s problems stem from the way the agency is structured, critics say. DHEC is run by a commissioner who is hired by a seven-member board. The governor chooses the board members, but he has no direct control over them after they are seated. Because the governor is not directly in charge, DHEC is subject to legislative meddling that has made it tentative on environmental and health protection initiatives, critics say.

“There is an outrage among citizens all across the state about the performance of DHEC,” said Ann Timberlake, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina. “This is about making government work better.”

DHEC, with more than 150 programs and 4,000 employees, is South Carolina’s fifth largest agency. The state is one of the few in the country to combine health and environmental agencies. DHEC’s responsibilities include issuing environmental permits, testing water quality, regulating landfills, inspecting restaurants and approving hospital expansions.

Sens. John Land, D-Clarendon, Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, and Robert Ford, D-Charleston, said they don’t like the plan because the governor would have too much authority over DHEC. The Senate’s leader, Glenn McConnell, said he also has plenty of questions.

“One of my main concerns is to make sure permits are not subject to political pressure,” McConnell, R-Charleston, said. “And that political pressure can just as easily come from inside the governor’s office as it can from the Legislature.”

McConnell said he wants to know more about DHEC.

“Are they too hung up on the small stuff and not focused enough on the big stuff? Those are some of the things you need to stop and look at.”

Meanwhile, the state Chamber of Commerce has come out against the bill. Chamber president Otis Rawl told The State in early January he thought the chamber would back making DHEC a cabinet agency. The chamber in the past has supported the idea. Since Rawl last spoke with the newspaper, many chamber members have said they are opposed. Rawl said chamber members worry that DHEC staffers would be replaced by political appointees.

Lewis Gossett, president of the S.C. Manufacturer’s Alliance, said The State’s series unfairly criticized DHEC. Gossett told The State in November and in January he favors a cabinet form of government, but he said Tuesday his group opposes that for DHEC.

“I do believe in the cabinet form of government, but DHEC doesn’t present a compelling case for restructuring. I don’t believe DHEC is that incompetent, and I don’t believe it is that unaccountable.’’

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.