When we call South Carolina the Legislative State, we don’t mean simply that the Legislature controls state government; we mean that the Legislature controls South Carolina. For most of its history, each local senator ran his county government, even writing the budget as a bill inside the State House.
It was only after the U.S. Supreme Court forced the state to start drawing Senate districts according to population that the basis for this legislative domination began to unravel. As the S.C. Municipal Association explains in its history of the Home Rule Act: “The senator was no longer as interested in being the county boss because the new district may encompass multiple counties or be a fraction of a larger county. There was an immediate need to find a way for counties to be governed without the ties to the legislative delegation.”
Within eight years, the Legislature asked voters to amend the state constitution with a bare-bones article on local government. Three years after that, in 1975, it passed the Home Rule Act, which allowed for the creation of county councils to handle many of the duties the resident senator used to perform. But the constitutional provision did nothing to stop the Legislature from restricting the powers of county councils, and nothing has stopped it. Among the most egregious restrictions: The Legislature tells counties, and cities, what kind of taxes they can levy, and even how much they can raise those taxes. All while ordering local governments to provide state services.
Beyond that, the Legislature retained the power to appoint local commissions, most notably election commissions, which they force the county councils to fund. The Legislature refused to dismantle hundreds of special little governments that lawmakers had created to provide specific services in their home counties, so those special purpose districts continue to do things cities and counties ought to do, driving up costs to the taxpayers and limiting the ability to coordinate county and city services.
And although the constitutional amendment prohibited legislators from passing laws that apply to just one county, legislators still do that, and those single-county laws hold the force of law unless someone files a lawsuit and the Supreme Court agrees to hear the suit — an all-too-rare occurrence.
It would be bad enough for legislators to hoard all this power if they were actually doing their jobs of tending to the needs of our state. But as our deteriorating, overcrowded roads and bridges remind us every day, they’re not.
About this series: The inaugural edition of The State newspaper was published Feb. 18, 1891. In anticipation of the 125th anniversary, the Palmetto section and this section at thestate.com are recounting each day how The State covered newsmakers and events vital to South Carolina’s history.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.