Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: A glimmer of a hint of hope for a less irrational government

AS HE WAS heading out of town with Jenny and the boys on their European vacation last month, the governor called to say he thought something good could come out of this whole mess: He was beginning to sense that legislators finally were warming up to government restructuring now that it was no longer possible that he could use such a significant victory as a launching board for another office.

I said something politely (but not sincerely) optimistic and dismissed the whole thing as just another bizarre Mark Sanford encounter. I didn't ask questions or probe him on this idea because it was late, I still had a lot of work left to do before I could leave for the day and he said I couldn't write about his new insight (he has since made it a key talking point in his mea culpa tour).

The idea seemed implausible, at best. Animosity toward Mr. Sanford, which felt like it couldn't get any stronger even before his Argentine vacation, was just one reason the Legislature has been unwilling to go beyond the partial restructuring it approved a decade and a half ago. Primarily, legislators don't want to give the governor the direct control over agencies that other governors take for granted because 1) it's a change, and we don't like change in South Carolina, and 2) anything that makes the governor stronger makes legislators comparatively weaker.

But while we were all distracted by the daily revelations about and increasingly combative responses by our high-flying governor and the insult-yelling congressman and the start of another football season and my new baby kitties (OK, so only I was distracted by that last one), there came from the State House a tiny little glimmer of a possibility of a small bit of governmental reform.

Senate Republican Leader Harvey Peeler, whose serious job is as chairman of the Medical Affairs Committee, announced right before Labor Day that he had put together a special subcommittee to work on three bills that would reconfigure several major health agencies and put the governor in charge of them. This is significant not so much because the bills are the be-all, end-all in the quest to drag our government out of the 19th century, but simply because anything is happening at all.

All three bills had looked promising earlier in the year - two of them because they grew up organically, in response to real-world needs rather than years of Mr. Sanford preaching philosophy (preceded and accompanied by even more years of my colleagues and me doing the same), and the third one because, well, I suppose because the first ones looked so promising:

- A bill to let the governor hire and fire the director of the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs - rather than having to go through the cumbersome route of replacing the part-time board members, and hoping the new members fire the director - passed the House after a blistering audit of the agency didn't result in any head-rolling for three months.

- Two influential senators - one traditionally among the most outspoken opponents of gubernatorial authority - introduced a bill to put the governor in charge of the Department of Health and Environmental Control after environmentalists came to realize that an unaccountable DHEC was a bigger threat to the environment than an accountable one.

- House Judiciary Chairman Jim Harrison, who had shepherded the Disabilities and Special Needs bill, had previously been working on legislation to fold the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services and the Continuum of Care into the Department of Mental Health and let the governor hire and fire the director; that bill passed the House just before the session ended.

But any real hope for progress on those measures, or another one to turn control of the Employment Security Commission over to the governor, seemed to fade away this spring as the governor's fight to keep federal stimulus funds out of South Carolina intensified; when the Legislature adjourned in May, I wrote a column declaring that Mr. Sanford had done more to damage the cause of restructuring with his advocacy than his two predecessors had with their indifference.

I'm not holding my breath that this has actually changed or that anything will come of Mr. Peeler's special summer subcommittee. The panel is heavy on senators who are openly hostile to the idea of giving the governor any more power (as is the Senate in general); and the bills under consideration have some problems that need to be worked out. For all I know, Mr. Peeler is trying to inoculate himself against attacks from Mr. Sanford's supporters by looking like he's moving on one of the governor's pet issues.

But special Senate panels that meet during the off-session have a pretty good (though certainly not perfect) track record of actually producing legislation that makes it into law. And frankly, the number of Sanford supporters is dwindling so rapidly, and the nature of this particular issue is so wonkish, that most legislators would probably figure they'd anger more voters by putting in for mileage reimbursement to come to Columbia for a couple of meetings than they'd win over by working on these bills.

Mr. Sanford's office "commended" Mr. Peeler for his "initiative" and pledged to work with the panel and the whole Legislature to try to push through these or other restructuring measures in the upcoming session. That's a good response - and all we need to hear. If Mr. Sanford really wants his successors to have the tools they need to be effective governors, his best move now would be to keep quiet other than issuing statements to commend and encourage the Legislature each step of the way.