Cindi Ross Scoppe

The gas tax debate and the curious case of Leroy Smith

tdominick@thestate.com

ANYBODY WHO believes that letting the governor control state agencies shuts out the Legislature needs to take a look at the revolt that occurred during the House’s budget debate.

After House Democratic Leader Todd Rutherford charged that state Public Safety Director Leroy Smith was to blame for high highway death rates and low employee morale and was suggesting that critics were taking shots at him because he was black, the House voted 76-20 to eliminate the funding for Mr. Smith’s position. That is, to fire him.

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‘No confidence’: S.C. House votes to fire Public Safety chief Smith

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It’s way too early to guess whether the House will get its way. The Senate would have to agree to the change, and either Gov. Henry McMaster would have to agree to it or else the House and the Senate would have to muster two-thirds votes to override his veto. And I don’t know enough to say whether the House’s vote was justified — although blaming Mr. Smith for traffic fatalities seems like more than a little bit of a stretch given that the Legislature decides how much money to provide the Highway Patrol, and many legislators are trying to blame the fatalities on bad roads.

But successful or not, justified or not, the House vote was an important reminder: When it comes to running the government, there is no greater power than the power of the purse. And no matter who makes appointments, it is the Legislature that holds that power.

Obviously the budget is a cumbersome tool for making personnel changes, and there is a big difference between being able to appoint the people you want and merely being able to get rid of people you don’t want. But in most of the country, everyone acknowledges that legislators are supposed to write the laws and, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, governors are supposed to carry out those laws — which means appointing the people to carry out those laws.

In South Carolina, where the prime directive dating back to the Colonial era was to keep power away from governors, we’ve actually come a long way in the past 30 years toward accepting that concept. In fact, there are only a few remaining holdouts — outside of local government, which is a whole different topic for another day — and the main one, the Transportation Commission, is at the heart of one of this year’s most important legislative power struggles.

Last year, the Legislature finally agreed to let the governor appoint transportation commissioners — technically. But small groups of legislators retained the right to vet and secretly veto them. The law also prohibits the governor from removing those commissioners without the approval of the legislative vetters.

This year’s House’s bill to raise the gas tax to pay for road improvements wisely removed those gubernatorial constraints, but the Senate Finance Committee removed that removal from the bill, because some senators don’t trust governors to appoint people who will make smart decisions about how to spend our limited road funds. Other senators have vowed to fight the tax increase at least until they get the House language back into the bill.

Could reform be the essential piece to road-funding puzzle? (Hint: Yes)

Yes, your gas taxes do go to pay for SC roads

Until last year, those small groups of legislators who now exercise secret veto power over gubernatorial appointments got to make the appointments themselves — and their record is certainly nothing to brag about. But they gave themselves no way to remove commissioners whose terms had not expired.

That was typical: Legislators, as far as I can tell, have never included provisions in state law for removing the people they recommend or appoint to government positions. So unless they can shame them into resigning, legislators’ only option for getting rid of appointees who turn out to be disasters — like now-former members of the Richland County Recreation Commission — is to convince the governor to act. And governors generally can’t act against legislative appointments unless they can prove that those people broke the law or refused to show up for work or committed one of a handful of similar enumerated offenses.

That, by the way, is also what a governor would have to do to remove Mr. Smith as Public Safety director. Contrary to the idea you’d get from the House members who complained about the governor’s failure to fire Mr. Smith himself, the Public Safety director does not work at the pleasure of the governor. Like the SLED chief and a handful of other officials, he can only be removed if the governor can show that he meets one of those enumerated causes.

What all this means is that eliminating his job is actually the easiest way to get rid of Mr. Smith, or any other protected gubernatorial appointee — just as it would have been the easiest option the Legislature had a year ago to remove its own transportation commissioners.

Make no mistake about this: If we allow governors to appoint transportation commissioners without excessive legislative meddling, the Legislature will not lose anything. The only potential loss of power will be for individual legislators, who won’t be able to exercise outsized behind-the-scenes power by threatening retaliation if agency directors don’t do their bidding — or promising favors if they do.

And that is something that everybody in this state ought to stand and applaud.

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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