PROVIDE A DECENT education to all kids, no matter where they live. Overhaul South Carolina’s antiquated tax system. Spend our limited resources on our most important needs. Give the state’s chief executive the tools to run the executive branch of government. Give city and county councils the tools to run their cities and counties. Loosen the Legislature’s stranglehold on the judiciary.
These aren’t sexy issues. They aren’t politically or, in some cases, even conceptually easy. Aside from the first one, and maybe the second, they aren’t the changes most legislators or lobbyists give a passing thought — and they certainly aren’t the changes voters are clamoring for.
But they are the essential changes our Legislature needs to make in order to help make South Carolina the kind of state we all want it to be — the kind of state where businesses want to create good-paying jobs, where we all want to retire, where our children and grandchildren want to live out their lives.
1. Educate all kids
We don’t need to provide a decent education to all children simply because the Supreme Court told our Legislature that the state constitution requires it. We don’t need to do it simply because we find test scores embarrassing or feel sorry for kids when we hear about how far we fall short of the goal.
We need to do it because children who don’t get a decent education drag down our whole state.
They end up in dead-end jobs and raise another generation just like themselves, and we pay for their welfare benefits and medical care. If they can’t get jobs and then become criminals, we become their victims; we pay for extra police to protect ourselves from them, and the jails that become their homes.
Educating all children starts with acknowledging that the poorest kids start school months or years behind better-off children, because their parents lack either the time, ability or desire to teach them to read and count and identify colors and raise their hands before they speak.
It involves providing teachers who can educate the poorest students at the same level as wealthier, easier-to-educate kids are educated, along with extra resources they need to catch up, from more intensive reading programs to muscular after-school and summer programs. Educating all children has to include giving principals the authority to get those good teachers into the classroom and weed out the ones who aren’t up to the job.
And legislators have to give up the comfortable status quo, where they meddle too much in their local schools but won’t intervene when those schools fail.
2. Prioritize spending
Our legislators write the state budget by assuming that everything we have ever done is essential and then divvying up any additional revenue. Rather than concentrating that new money where it can do the most good, they spread it around, to make as many people happy as possible. So we keep operating programs that are much less important than those we underfund. Think education, or child-abuse protection, or road maintenance.
That could work, if lawmakers wanted to raise taxes enough to pay for all that stuff we’ve always done in addition to all that stuff we need to do.
But if they don’t want to raise taxes — and they clearly do not, and certainly should not under those circumstances — they need to figure out what we need to do as a state, how we best can do it and how much it will cost. Then they need to fund the most important services and eliminate the rest.
3. Overhaul the tax code
Our tax system is a cobbled-together shrine to special interests, more loophole than coherent whole. Consider the sales tax: If we eliminated all of our exemptions, we could slash our 6 percent sales tax to 3 percent and still collect the same amount of money.
Yet the Legislature keeps creating more loopholes and cutting more taxes. Instead, it needs to create a tax system that covers as large a swath of our economy as possible, at the lowest possible rate, that uses a smart combination of different taxes — sales, income, property, gasoline and other specialty levies — to balance stability and fairness, a system that will promote rather than hinder our state’s most important goals.
Although we’re not crazy about its fixation on the income tax, we’ve been encouraged by the House panel that is working on a reform proposal; its members seem to understand that the most popular tax ideas don’t make a lot of sense, and that simple fixes usually create more problems than they solve.
Also encouraging: the likely change of governors. Unlike Nikki Haley, we don’t expect Henry McMaster to demand that a tax-reform package cut taxes by $3 for every $1 they are increased. (No, that’s not a typo; yes, she really did demand that.) That makes actual reform — cleaning up the system, not simply raising or lowering overall tax collections — possible.
4. Empower the governor
In the past few years, lawmakers have allowed governors to pick their own running mates, hire and fire the adjutant general and control the state’s central administrative agency. But the directors of the state Education and Agriculture departments are still elected, as are two separate financial officers. That’s bad enough, since public education is the most important thing a state does (nor do governors have any control over the state’s colleges), but lawmakers also have severely limited gubernatorial authority over most of the other major agencies: SLED and the departments of Transportation, Public Safety and Health and Environmental Control.
The governor technically controls most other agencies, but only by hiring and firing hundreds of members of part-time governing boards. That means most of our government is controlled not by the person we elect to control our government but by a bunch of people we’ve never heard of — or by individual legislators who work the strings of power outside the public view.
We need to let the governor hire and fire the directors of nearly all state agencies. We also need to consolidate agencies with similar functions, in order to reduce overlap, improve coordination and make it easier for governors — and legislators — to keep up with what those agencies are doing.
5. Free cities and counties
It ought to be simple: We elect county council members to run our county and, if we live in a city, city council members to run that. But the Legislature routinely tells those elected officials what they can’t do (raise taxes, regulate billboards, etc.) and what they must do (spend money on state services that the Legislature is supposed to help pay for but doesn’t).
And that’s just the beginning: State legislators still appoint important local governing boards such as county election commissions, and they maintain the independent special purpose districts that were created before counties had any power, to do the things that cities and counties ought to do.
This drives up costs, limits the ability to coordinate county and city services and, as we’ve seen with the Richland County Recreation Commission, invites all sorts of other problems as well.
This robs voters of the ability to decide how their communities are governed, and it needs to end.
6. Free the judiciary
Like the federal government and the other 49 states, South Caroling has an executive branch, a legislative branch and a judicial branch. Unlike all but one of them, the Legislature controls the judiciary, electing judges with no input from the governor.
With lawmakers also controlling the budget, the temptation is great for the judiciary to be subservient to the Legislature — or to powerful individual legislators. Even when judges are completely independent, this arrangement makes it hard to convince the public of that.
We believe the governor should appoint judges who are vetted by an independent merit selection commission and confirmed by the Legislature.
But there are other power-sharing arrangements that could work as well; the specific method matters less than ensuring that neither branch can intimidate our judges — or create that appearance.
One reason our Legislature has not been able to do the difficult work it needs to do — overhauling our tax system, setting spending priorities, making our public education system what we all need it to be — is that it has stretched itself too thin.
By properly allocating power — by leaving executive duties to the chief executive, by leaving local duties to local governments, by making the judiciary a co-equal branch — it will free itself to properly allocate our state’s limited resources.
And that will allow lawmakers to devote all of their time to exercising the still-quite-significant legislative duties the constitution envisioned:
Deciding what powers and duties state agencies should have. Making sure those agencies perform as they should. And identifying ways to make South Carolina that state where businesses want to create good-paying jobs, where all of us want to live out our lives, and where our children and grandchildren know they can make productive lives for themselves and their families as well.