A state Senate Democrat said he plans again to file legislation placing the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs in the governor’s cabinet to increase accountability.
Sen. John Scott of Columbia, who serves on the Senate Medical Affairs Committee, told The Greenville News he has lost faith in the agency and believes change is needed.
“We don’t want to be harsh but we do want this agency to come into compliance,” he said.
Scott may find support among Republicans for the legislation, said outgoing Sen. Mike Fair, a Greenville Republican who also serves on the Medical Affairs Committee.
“That probably could happen,” Fair said. “The whole matter of reform was something, at least in our time, that was started by Carroll Campbell. Republicans since then more often than not have been for continued reform, which usually makes the cabinet larger but makes the agency smaller.”
Sen. Harvey Peeler, a Gaffney Republican who chairs the Senate Medical Affairs Committee, said he likes the idea.
“That’s not a bad idea,” he said. “I need to take a look at the specifics. But that’s not a bad idea. Matter of fact, I think it’s a good idea.”
DDSN serves about 20,000 vulnerable adults, those with severe intellectual disabilities, autism, traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries, in a variety of settings, according to the agency. It employs more than 2,100 workers full time and another almost 9,000 are employed in the agency’s provider network. The agency’s current budget totals $729 million, most of which is federal money.
Bill Danielson, chairman of the DDSN board, offered no preference for the current system or a cabinet model in a statement to The News.
“The Commission on Disabilities and Special Needs and the Department will abide by the General Assembly and governor,” he said “That goes without saying. There are benefits to both the cabinet model and the commission model. In either model, both the governor and the Legislature are involved in deciding the leadership.
Rob Godfrey, a spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley, said, the governor “believes more accountability would be a good thing for DDSN.”
Scott said he has been frustrated over the years by the agency’s lack of progress in implementing recommendations by the Legislative Audit Council and most recently by the agency’s commission adopting rules for board members’ conduct that prohibit the tape recording of meetings.
He said he has asked State Attorney General Alan Wilson for an opinion about whether such a rule is valid since the state Freedom of Information Act allows the tape recording by anyone of public meetings. Proponents of the rules said they are guidelines and no sanctions would be applied to any commissioners not following them. The board does not use tape record its meetings for official minutes.
Scott said the agency, in its facilities or through contracted private providers, cares for thousands of vulnerable adults, some of whom have died or been victims of abuse or neglect.
“We just want that to change,” he said. “I just think that with the present form of governance that they are operating under, that is not going to happen.”
Last year, Scott filed a bill with Sen. Kevin Bryant of Anderson to place the agency in the state Department of Health and Human Services, which administer’s Medicaid funding.
Officials estimated the bill would initially cost the state $1.1 million if enacted in technology and communication costs. The legislation did not make it out of committee.
Two months later, Scott filed a bill to place the agency in the governor’s cabinet, with the director appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. The agency’s commission would then serve as an advisory board.
That bill also did not make it out of committee.
The Legislature returns to work in January with a new, two-year session.