The Buzz

Columbia, Richland County need more state oversight, GOP Senate candidates say

Republican candidates for SC Senate District 20. Clockwise, John Holler, Bill Turbeville, Christian Stegmaier, and Benjamin Dunn.
Republican candidates for SC Senate District 20. Clockwise, John Holler, Bill Turbeville, Christian Stegmaier, and Benjamin Dunn.

They are competing to represent much of Columbia and Richland County in the state Senate, but the Republicans running in the special election for the District 20 seat have some problems with city and county governments.

The GOP candidates in Tuesday’s special primary election told a meeting of about 100 Republicans Thursday in Irmo that the Midlands has fallen behind other parts of the state, and at least one GOP candidate pointed the finger at local leaders.

“It’s hard to argue the Midlands have not fallen behind Greenville-Spartanburg and Charleston,” said attorney Benjamin Dunn. “Two reasons are Richland County and the city of Columbia. The way these two governments are run is a disaster.”

Spending decisions by Richland County, in particular, have been criticized recently.

In March, for instance, the state Supreme Court ordered the county to repay more than $3 million that it said the county improperly had spent out of its controversial “penny” program for roads. And, in May, the county agreed to pay $1 million to former County Administrator Gerald Seals after council voted narrowly to fire him earlier. Seals had threatened to sue over his firing.

Dunn says he always has thought power should be exercised at the lowest level possible.

“But looking at Richland County and the city of Columbia, my belief in that has been tested,” Dunn said. “I believe you can attribute the lag we have suffered the last couple of decades to leadership, and that’s in the County Council chamber and in City Hall.”

If the Legislature stepped in and reined in city and county spending, “We’ll be able to stop some of the sillier things they do on a constant basis,” Dunn said.

Bill Turbeville pointed to the penny tax controversy, the firing of the county administrator and the recreation commission’s problems as a troubling pattern in local government.

“You have to wonder how things are being run, whenever a big company like Amazon or Nephron moves in, they go to Lexington,” Turbeville said.

Christian Stegmaier said business leaders agree that “Richland County is falling behind other parts of the state.”

“City Council went to a ribbon-cutting for an ATM,” Stegmaier said. “In the Upstate, they’re opening plants. You should be a partner for business.”

He said the Richland County legislative delegation should exercise more oversight over how local governments are operating.

“How many times have they met in 2018? Zero,” he said of the local delegation. “That’s where the business gets done. They should be partners with the school board, with County Council. As a member of the Senate, there will be meetings and oversight and discussions.”

Not only should the delegation exercise more oversight, but the penny-tax program should work hand in hand with the Department of Transportation on infrastructure improvements, Turbeville said.

“You can’t lay the blame at the feet of city or county council, but they, the delegation, should definitely be more involved,” he said.

City and county officials say the GOP candidates don’t understand what they are talking about.

Richland County Councilman Greg Pearce, a Republican, said the criticism may reflect the fact that none of the candidates has any experience in government.

“We do have problems, and, because we’re the capital county, we just get more attention,” Pearce said.

However, Pearce said, his biggest concern is the state doesn’t provide enough money for services that it requires the county to provide. “They froze the local government fund back in 2008, and the result is a $30 million shortfall that we’ve had to make up.”

He also noted the county has to pay for the troubled recreation commission, even though it’s managed directly by the county’s legislative delegation. “I wish the Legislature worked with us more closely.”

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said the city has made great strides in economic development in recent years.

“We’ve supported small businesses, revitalized Main Street and attracted over a billion dollars in private-sector investment to our city and the Midlands,” Benjamin said, adding, “I’d be happy to meet with anyone to explain our formula for success.”

Both Dunn and Stegmaier live in the northwestern portion of Richland County, distant from the more Democratic-dominated portions of the city and county. Dunn lives in the Ballentine area, while Stegmaier is from Chapin.

The district covers a wide area, stretching from the southern neighborhoods of Columbia to the northwest, along Interstate 26 into portions of Lexington County.

Candidate John Holler of Columbia agrees the city is falling behind its competitors in the Upstate and Lowcountry, but he doesn’t think that’s entirely the fault of local leaders.

“Greenville, for a long time, had industry that Columbia does not have. Charleston has the coast that Columbia does not have,” said Holler. “We have our rivers, our universities, great technical (school) system. ... We have a workforce, we have a good education system, to recruit with vigor those kinds of companies to raise our tax base and get the things we really want.”

Voters may pick head of SC’s schools for the last time

At the same time that S.C. voters will be picking the state’s superintendent of education this November, they will decide if they should continue to elect the state’s top education official.

Earlier this year, the Legislature approved putting a constitutional amendment on November’s ballot that would change the way the state’s school system is overseen, making the superintendent of education a position appointed by the governor, not elected by voters.

The state’s constitutional ballot commission approved the language for that question, which voters will answer, Thursday.

Currently, voters directly elect the head of the state Education Department every four years. Former state Rep. Molly Spearman, a Republican, was elected to oversee S.C. schools in 2014 and is running for a second, four-year term this fall against Democrat Israel Romero.

At the same time, voters will decide if they would rather have the governor appoint the education superintendent, subject to qualifications for the job to be set by the Legislature. That change would give the governor’s office more control over education policy and allow voters to directly judge the state’s chief executive based on how the state’s schools are performing.

Republicans generally have favored the idea. Some Democrats oppose it.

State education superintendent was the last statewide post held by a Democrat. Since 2011, however, the job — like every other statewide post in South Carolina — has been held by a Republican.

The move would remove one of eight statewide constitutional officers whom voters now vote on every four years, reducing a crowded ballot that now includes the state treasurer, comptroller general and commissioner of agriculture.

Spearman, the current superintendent, favors the change, saying it would ensure the governor and superintendent share a common vision for the state’s schools and allow educators, who wouldn’t run for political office, to hold the post.

The superintendent elected this year will serve until January 2023. The governor will appoint a replacement if the post comes open before then.

Until 2014, S.C. voters elected the adjutant general to head the state’s National Guard. Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston was elected to the post that year. Thanks to a similar amendment adopted that year, the governor will decide on the next adjutant general when Livingston’s term expires next January.

Crangle is American Party nominee, too

Longtime government watchdog John Crangle has picked up a second endorsement in his race for the S.C. House of Representatives.

Crangle, the former head of the Common Cause public advocacy group, already was the Democratic nominee for the House District 75 seat in Richland County, running against four-term GOP incumbent Kirkman Finlay.

In July, Crangle also won the nomination of the small, centrist American Party at that party’s state convention. That will give Crangle two places on November’s ballot.

Crangle said the American Party nomination gives him a platform to reach “disgruntled Republicans” who care about issues that he wants to highlight, including education and public corruption.

Promising to help root out corruption at the State House, Crangle also wants to abolish the S.C. House. He thinks that would allow the state Senate to become a full-time legislative body and eliminate potential conflicts of interest.

The American Party also nominated another Democrat in an S.C. House race. Robin Gause of Horry County, running for the S.C. House’s District 106 seat, also has the nomination of the Working Families Party.

John Crangle is the Executive Director of Common Cause in South Carolina and he recently wrote a book on Operation Lost Trust, an FBI sting that saw 18 South Carolina legislators indicted in the 1990s for corruption charges.

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