Spawns of the Legislative State

In my column this morning, I referred to the Richland County Board of Elections and Voter Registration as a spawn of the Legislative State, which I thought was a pretty cool term.

But the important term in that phrase was “Legislative State.” Dismantling this 18th century form of government long has been one of the top priorities of our editorial board, because so many of our problems can be traced directly to that form of government, and that form of government makes it so much more difficult than it should be for us to solve our problems. But there’s rarely room in a column or editorial to flesh out precisely what the Legislative State is.

So … I thought I’d share the fullest description I’ve given. This is from a 2012 column explaining how both the Richland County election debacle and the Revenue Department computer hacking had their roots in the Legislative State:

Southern historian V.O. Key first identified our “Legislative Government” as a uniquely South Carolina problem in his classic 1949 book, Southern Politics. The term “ Legislative State “ was coined, best as I can tell, by S.C. historians Walter Edgar and Blease Graham, who described it as essentially an 18th-century English colonial political system.

In a 1990 guest column in The State, Drs. Edgar and Graham traced the Legislative State to the period between 1719 and 1776, after South Carolinians deposed the Lords Proprietors and before they kicked out the British, when the colonial Commons House of Assembly became the dominant branch of government. “Royal governors were cowed or ignored,” they wrote. “Local government was stifled. Members of the Assembly wanted to ensure that as much authority as possible remained in their hands.”

After the Revolution, the Assembly became the General Assembly, but otherwise, little changed. Over the centuries, demands grew for more government services, but rather than putting governors in charge of administering services and creating local governments to handle local needs, legislators handled everything themselves.

They created boards and commissions to deliver the services, and they appointed the members. Eventually, they did create county governments, and they let the governor appoint some boards, and after our last big governmental failure, two decades ago, they put the governor directly in charge of a third of state government. But they left themselves ostensibly in charge of much of the rest of the state government and too-large swaths of local government; in reality, no one was in charge.

Which brings us back to the monumental governmental failures of 2012.

The direct cause of the election debacle appears to have been incompetence, and the direct cause of the hacking appears to have been a careless error by a Revenue Department employee and outdated security systems.

But the basic underpinning of the Legislative State is the ability of a small group of senators to rule this state through an informal network of personal connections. It is a government built around people rather than laws, which means it works well when highly competent people happen into critical positions, not so well when they don’t.

It doesn’t take much effort to trace the bungled election and the computer breach to that characteristic.

The opposite of the Legislative State is a government that can work when people fail. It has clear lines of authority. Someone who answers to the public, the governor, can hire and fire agency directors. County councils deliver local services. Commissions hold authority only in those special cases where the risk of political meddling is clearly greater than the need for political accountability. And agencies are kept to a reasonable number, so whoever is in charge can manage them and coordinate their activities.

This is how I concluded that column:

The Legislative State might have served its purpose in the days when slaves picked cotton for the wealthy plantation owners whose interests it was crafted to serve. It might have worked a century ago, when the textile magnates controlled our government and could depend on it to provide those limited services that they needed. Maybe it even served its purpose in the ’50s, when South Carolina still could pretty much ignore the rest of the world, and government didn’t do a lot more than educate white people and pave roads for the industrialists and planters.

It does not serve its purpose, or our purpose, or anybody’s purpose today.

When things go well, it gives us state agencies that waste money and provide inferior services because they have overlapping mandates and don’t work together or even talk to each other. It hamstrings governors’ ability to deliver on the agenda the voters elected them to implement. It diverts state legislators’ attention from fixing our state’s problems, as they busy themselves delivering patronage and fixate on parochial matters that should be handled by local governments.

And when things don’t go well …. Well, then it gives us botched elections and identity theft on a massive scale and officials who lack the legal authority to make things right.

It’s time for a change.

More than a year later, that’s all still true.