WE’RE ABOUT to hear a lot at the State House about providing more money to fix our roads. What we won’t hear a lot about is providing accountability in the agency that will spend all that money.
That is not, as some legislators will tell you, because the Legislature already reformed the Transportation Department’s parochial, part-time governing board. At least not if by reform you mean “improve” it, do anything that reformers hoped to accomplish, do anything that has a prayer of making the agency more accountable, that injects it with better judgment, makes it more trustworthy in how it spends our money. The Legislature no more reformed our road-building agency last year than it solved our roads problem. Less actually.
Last year, the Legislature stole another $200 million a year from schools and courts and prisons and child protection and other services and gave it to the Transportation Department. That’s not nearly enough to take care of our deep needs to repair deep ruts in our roads and bridges, projected at give or take $1 billion a year, for what feels like forever. But it’s something.
As for reform? Lawmakers dismantled a system in which the director of the Transportation Department answered to both the governor and a part-time board appointed by small, regional groups of legislators. In the new system, the board will hire and fire the director, and the governor will appoint the board members. But the governor’s nominees can be secretly rejected by small, regional groups of legislators. Once nominees receive their legislative blessing, the governor can’t remove them without getting approval from the legislators who blessed them. Which is to say that to the extent that the board members work for anyone, it’s those small, regional groups of legislators.
Can you say parochial decision-making that has nothing to do with the needs of the entire state? If so, you can describe the old system — and the “reformed” system.
This new system is so bad that everybody who actually supports the idea of accountability panned it. Sen. Tom Davis, whose primary goal last year was to make sure we did not raise the gas tax, urged the governor to veto a bill that gave the Transportation Department $200 million a year without raising a tax, because it included this fraud.
The governor called the appointment plan “little more than window dressing” although she signed the funding-diversion bill, since it allowed everyone to say they had provided some more money for roads without raising taxes.
And House leaders, who got outmaneuvered by the Senate into accepting this monstrosity, promised they would make it right this year, using a new push for a gas tax increase as leverage in the Senate.
Last month, those same House leaders introduced their new road-funding bill — without any reform. To their credit, they do not say we already did that. They say rank-and-file House members — never as excited about reform as they should have been — are demoralized from losing last year’s smart reform and funding package. So demoralized that many might not even support the gas tax increase that is the centerpiece of this year’s bill if reform gets thrown back into the mix.
Even if the whole House were willing to support reform again, House leaders see little reason to try. Among other problems, they lost one of their most important Senate allies in Larry Martin, and the most important reform opponent, Hugh Leatherman, returned this year stronger than ever.
Maybe they’re right about the politics. Certainly there’s little point in trying until the House is willing to draw a line in the sand and say no more money until we get real reform — which representatives weren’t willing to do even last year. But legislators’ refusal to act does nothing to change what needs to be done. We must not lose sight of that, and we must not allow them to lose sight of that.
Whoever is calling the shots at the Transportation Department needs to be focused on what’s best for the state as a whole — not what’s best for each of seven regions, each with more parochial little needs inside it. Whoever is calling the shots at the Transportation Department needs to be held accountable for bad decisions about how to spend our money, and for bad management — which can only happen when someone who cares about those matters has the ability to fire people if needed.
The only way that will happen under the “reformed” governing system is if legislators voluntarily allow the governor to appoint the people he wants to appoint and remove them when he sees fit.
I would love to see that happen. But given how adamantly senators fought to win their blocking powers, and given the history of gubernatorial appointments that depend on the consent of small groups of legislators (think magistrates, or Richland County Recreation Commissioners, at least until last year), I expect it to happen right around the time that pigs perfect their wings.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.