LAWMAKERS RETURN to Columbia on Tuesday focused on flood recovery and highway repairs, police conduct and poor school districts, and those topics all deserve their attention.
But with the exception of education adequacy — a long-neglected need that has been pushed to the top of their agenda by a long-awaited Supreme Court order — these top-of-mind tasks are simple matters. Important, but simple.
The more daunting challenges — the more important challenges — are the ones our legislators have failed to address year in and year out: the systemic problems that demand systemic reforms that would focus our lawmakers more clearly on the public good, capitalize on our tremendous potential, utilize our limited financial resources more wisely, enable our government to operate more efficiently and effectively and more in keeping with the public will.
To make South Carolina a state where businesses want to create good-paying jobs and our children and grandchildren want to live out their lives, legislators need to adopt these seven fundamental reforms:
Provide every child the opportunity to get a decent education. The state constitution requires it, the state Supreme Court has mandated it, and it is in the interest of all of us to do it, because children who don’t get a decent education drag down our entire state.
They end up in dead-end jobs and raise another generation of children just like themselves, and we pay for their welfare benefits and medical benefits. If they can’t get jobs and instead turn to crime, we become their victims, and we have to pay for extra police to protect ourselves from them, and the jails that become their homes.
SC education ruling demands adequacy, not just equity
There’s no magic bullet, but educating all children starts with focusing on the actual job rather than maintaining the comfortable status quo, in which legislators meddle too much in their local schools but won’t intervene when those schools fail. It starts with acknowledging — as a House report nearly a year in the making does — that the best thing we can do for children is to give them good teachers. It starts with giving principals the authority to get those good teachers into the classroom and weed out the ones who aren’t up to the job.
It involves 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 them teachers who can educate them at the same level as wealthier, easier-to-educate kids are educated, along with the extra resources they need to catch up: more intensive reading programs and muscular after-school and summer programs, for example.
Overhaul an ethics law that makes too many unethical activities legal and does too little to discourage illegal activities.
The main purpose of an ethics law isn’t to punish wrongdoing (though it needs to be able to do that); it’s to deter our elected officials from putting the personal interests of themselves, their families, their employers and their campaign donors ahead of the interests of the public.
Why don’t half of SC senators want outside eyes looking closely at their activities?
We can reduce the temptation to violate the law by requiring officials to disclose their sources of income, giving investigators more tools to catch wrongdoing, imposing tough penalties on violators and letting an independent commission investigate legislators. And that’s what must be done.
Simply consider what would have happened if independent investigators had questioned convicted former House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s illegal expenditures when they were still in the gray area, before he started fabricating expenses for which he could reimburse himself.
3. Gubernatorial authority
Allow our governor to control the executive branch and act as a counter-balance to an all-powerful Legislature.
Lawmakers have chipped away at a Reconstruction-era system that divides the executive branch into independent silos to make it impossible for it to serve as a check on legislative power. But this remains a legislative state, to our detriment.
To see how determined some legislators are to retain control, consider the roads debate. The Legislature wants to increase the gas tax, but Senate leaders refuse to give up their control of the Transportation Commission in return. So we retain a parochial, vote-trading commission that takes its marching orders from powerful legislators but doesn’t have the money to keep our roads and bridges up to standard, much less tackle growing congestion.
Ideally, the Legislature writes the laws, and the governor implements those laws. We’d get closer to that ideal if we let the governor appoint the director of state education and agriculture departments.
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.
4. Judicial selection
Redesign a judicial selection process that gives the Legislature a stranglehold on one of the three supposedly co-equal branches of government.
Imagine if the Legislature still elected the governor, or if the Supreme Court appointed our Legislature. Yet our Legislature appoints our judges, with no input from the governor.
The coming assault on judicial integrity
This has always been unwise, but the Harrell saga forced it into stark relief. Did judges give Mr. Harrell more than every benefit of the doubt, and ignore the law, because the Legislature elects and reelects them, and sets their budget, and Mr. Harrell was the Legislature’s top judge-maker? The fact that such questions are even imaginable underlines the folly of our arrangement.
We believe the governor should appoint judges who are vetted by an independent merit selection commission and confirmed by the Legislature. But the specific method matters less than ensuring that neither branch can intimidate our judges — or create that appearance.
5. Local autonomy
Emancipate our cities and counties from the legislative domination that makes them little more than wards of the state.
It was just 40 years ago that the Legislature stopped running county governments and allowed voters to elect councils to run them, but legislators have has sharply restricted the power of those county councils to levy taxes and regulate billboards and do all sorts of other things that local governments need to do.
Spawns of the Legislative State
State legislators retained the power to appoint important local governing boards — think of the Richland County Election Commission — and refused to dismantle independent special purpose districts that do things cities and counties ought to do, thus driving up costs to the taxpayers and limiting the ability to coordinate county and city services.
This robs voters of the ability to decide how their communities are governed, and it distracts legislators from their actual job: identifying ways to make our state government work better, and making sure that agencies operate as their laws require.
6. Better budgeting
Repair our budgeting process. The Legislature writes the state budget by assuming that everything we have ever done is essential and then divvying up any additional revenue. And 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.
The result is that we keep operating programs that are much less important than those that are underfunded. Think education, or child-abuse protection, or road maintenance.
Lawmakers need to step back and figure out what we need to do as a state, how we best can do it, how much it will cost, and how much we can afford. Then they need to fund those services that are most important and eliminate the others.
7. Tax reform
Reform our tax code. Our tax system is a cobbled-together paean to special interests, more loophole than coherent whole. The sales tax is a microcosm of the problem: 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.
Why we should celebrate the end of the Amazon tax exemption
Yet rather than creating a tax system that covers as large a swath of our economy as possible, at the lowest possible rate, that is balanced for stability and fairness, that will promote rather than hinder our state’s most important goals, the Legislature keeps creating more loopholes and cutting more taxes.
The gas tax debate illustrates this psychosis. Our gas tax is the third-lowest in the nation, and a third of it is paid by people who don’t live in our state. We pay a lower percentage of our income in income taxes than people in 32 states. Yet in order to raise the gas tax to pay for a $40 billion backlog in road repairs and improvements, the governor demands that we cut the income tax — by three times as much. And her proposal is taken seriously.
So here’s a thought: If overhauling our tax system to make it smarter and flatter and broader is a bridge too far, how about a more modest goal for the year? Don’t do anything to make it worse.