Cindi Ross Scoppe

Will Henry McMaster make Cabinet government work?

An early test of whether SC Gov Henry McMcMaster is interested in making government work will be how he handles problems at the SC Department of Juvenile Justice.
An early test of whether SC Gov Henry McMcMaster is interested in making government work will be how he handles problems at the SC Department of Juvenile Justice. tglantz@thestate.com

ON THE SECOND day that Henry McMaster was our governor, Juvenile Justice Director Sylvia Murray testified defiantly before a House Oversight subcommittee, arguing that the Legislative Audit Council was out to get her with its scathing audit of her agency.

On the third day that Mr. McMaster was our governor, Ms. Murray abruptly resigned.

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Head of SC Juvenile Justice resigns

SC juvenile jail didn’t report deaths, not prepared for riots, report says

A year after riot, Juvenile Justice says it does not need any more money

How Henry McMaster can be the governor South Carolina needs

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I can’t say for certain that Gov. McMaster told her she could resign or be fired, but indications are that he did. And the rapid resignation bolstered legislators’ already high hopes for the new governor. Besides being someone who would work with them instead of against them, they thought, maybe Mr. McMaster also would be a governor who actually cares about … governing.

Maybe he would pay enough attention to his Cabinet agencies to get out ahead of problems. Maybe he would hold his Cabinet directors accountable for their failures, rather than defending them. Maybe he would be the first governor to actually use the significant tools lawmakers have granted to the chief executive over the past quarter century to run the government.

One of the biggest challenges Mr. McMaster faces, as one of his Senate allies told me, is high expectations. Expectations bordering on unrealistic. But even if better relationships with legislators don’t produce the legislative springtime so many expect, he still could be quite successful if he gets control of his agencies. In fact, that might be the most important thing he can do to achieve his vision of making South Carolina the kind of place our children and grandchildren want to live out their lives.

And in the process, as one of his House allies suggested, he could achieve the goal that eluded his two predecessors, by reducing legislative resistance to further empowering governors.

For much of our history, the Legislature controlled state agencies through part-time governing boards that lawmakers appointed. But as government grew larger and more complex, and the Legislature was no longer controlled by a handful of iron fists, this arrangement no longer worked. Everyone was in charge of state agencies, so no one was in charge. Crises erupted that demanded leadership changes, and there was no one to change the leadership; the only way to fix things was for the Legislature to reorganize an agency — which remained in chaos until a bill worked its way into law.

Finally, after a cluster of crises brought the problem to a head, the Legislature agreed in 1993 to give the governor control of about a third of state government, including the departments of Commerce, Revenue, Social Services, Corrections and Juvenile Justice. Although lawmakers pulled back some of that authority during Mark Sanford’s reign, they agreed in recent years to add a bit more.

Cabinet government was supposed to make it easier for governors to implement the policies they ran on. It also was supposed to provide accountability and coordination: A governor, acutely aware of public opinion and legacy, would demand that a director correct problems before they became crises, and replace that person if it didn’t happen — something the largely anonymous part-time governing boards rarely did. A governor could insist that his agencies work together toward common goals rather than competing for power and resources.

Putting governor in charge is risky, but safer than the alternative

But the potential has never been realized. Carroll Campbell, who along with The State’s editorial board spearheaded the campaign for reform, had the new powers for only a year before his second term ended. The next two governors — David Beasley and Jim Hodges — appointed agency directors who reflected their political philosophy and managed them fairly well, but each served just one term, when the new system was still in its infancy.

Then came Govs. Sanford and Nikki Haley, who again appointed people who reflected their political philosophy, and talked about accountability, and demanded more authority. But their actions didn’t match their words. And Ms. Haley stood by her directors. Even when hackers stole our personal tax information, and babies the state was supposed to be protecting died, and juvenile prisoners rioted.

The governors’ focus wasn’t making government work better. It was shrinking government. And they demanded that their Cabinet directors make that their priority.

So we didn’t get the coordination and improvements we were promised. And when agency directors presented their budget requests to legislators, it was like watching a hostage video: No, we do not need more money than the governor requested, no matter how it looks.

And babies died because there weren’t enough social workers to protect them from dangerous parents. And dams breached because there weren’t enough inspectors to find their flaws. And Cabinet agencies ran nine-figure deficits that lawmakers had to scramble to fill after the directors low-balled their expenses. And legislators had to do the work of the Commerce Department because the governor didn’t like playing the incentives game.

As legislators tried to clean up messes not of their making, the rest of us had to live with the consequences of a government that wasn’t doing the job we were paying it to do.

Changing that whole dynamic would be a good place for Gov. McMaster to focus his attention — starting with the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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