Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: We're in the game; let's not blow it

EVERYBODY'S calling it a game-changer.

I hope they're right.

South Carolina could sure use a new game.

For much of the past decade, South Carolina has been on a frightful economic slide. It wasn't so noticeable when the national economy was roaring ahead at dizzying speeds and our leaky little boat was being carried along by the rising tide, simply not moving as fast as everyone else's. But when the recession hit everyone in the gut and then kept punching, it became painfully clear that we have serious problems that other states don't.

Low wages. High unemployment.

Too many people in prison. Too few in college.

Subpar schools we'd rather fight over than fix.

Low birth-weight babies. High infant mortality.

More than our share of chronic disease. Less than our share of access to the routine treatment that saves lives.

Yes, we need to change games.

Boeing's decision to bring 3,800 high-paying, highly skilled jobs to our state can't solve our problems on its own. Even if it turns out that every one of those jobs spins off 11 more, as one economist predicted, that won't do anything in the short term for the 11.5 percent of South Carolinians who are still looking for a job (more have given up). Even long term, those jobs alone won't fix an economy whose problems stem from more than a century of bad policies and bad breaks.

But Boeing can change our attitude, and that's where we have to start our new game.

We need to give up that favorite South Carolina pastime of focusing on what we can't do and why we can't do it, and just start doing it. Stop listening to those who preach failure (another favorite Palmetto pastime) and start working for success. Stop settling for second-rate.

Our legislative leaders just demonstrated, in a dramatic and surprising way, that they can work together for great good with amazing success: Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman led the negotiations with Boeing; Senate President Pro Tem. Glenn McConnell and House Speaker Bobby Harrell summoned the Legislature back to work in October and rammed through the promised tax and infrastructure package in two days - while simultaneously correcting the indefensible oversight that was denying federal unemployment benefits to up to 30,000 of those jobless job-seekers.

Now, I want to be careful that no one thinks I'm endorsing the procedural shortcuts they took to pass these bills so quickly. Or the fact that the incentive package was worked out behind closed doors and sprung on lawmakers and the public as a take-it-or-leave-it - but don't you dare even think about leaving it - deal that wasn't vetted or questioned and might not have been fully understood. Or the destructive bidding wars that states engage in to land big industrial prizes with massive economic incentives that aren't always good investments.

I get heartburn over all of that, as I think we all should, and we need to make it clear that such tactics may be used only in the most extraordinary of circumstances. But as even Gov. Mark Sanford has at least implicitly acknowledged, sometimes you just have to suck it up, and this probably was one of those times.

My point is that if our legislative leaders can provide that sort of leadership, and if all of our legislators can come together the way they did this week, and set aside all of their disagreements over how and when and who gets credit and work together unanimously - unanimously - to make sure we land Boeing, and get those jobless benefits flowing, then they can work together to make progress against our other problems. Problems whose solutions do not require them to just swallow whatever three legislative leaders tell them to, but merely ask that they stop running from difficult or complicated tasks, and negotiate in good faith, and engage in the give and take that are supposed to be a normal part of the legislative process.

That simple little change of attitude will get us a long way toward overhauling a tax system that encourages us to smoke and discourages certain types of businesses from even considering us. It will get us a long way toward replacing a confederacy of semi-autonomous state agencies that specialize in finger-pointing and blame-shifting with an actual government whose parts work together to solve problems and create opportunity. It is a necessary first step toward giving all children in our state a shot at a good education, whether they were read to in their womb and live in McMansions or they can't even distinguish their colors or hold a pencil when they walk into a school located along the Corridor of Shame - which of course is the only way we ultimately are going to lift our state out of poverty and crime and poor health and environmental degradation and turn it into a place where our children and grandchildren will want to raise their own families.

Of course, our legislators shouldn't have to do all this on their own. They shouldn't even have to take the lead. That's what governors are supposed to do: provide the vision and leadership to move us forward, and keep legislators focused on that vision.

Mark Sanford didn't get in the way of the Boeing deal, which, given all of our angst over how his escapades had turned South Carolina into an untouchable, is an amazingly good thing. But talk about low expectations.

We deserve better. We deserve - we need - a governor who will take the lead as we get ready to play our new game.

Over the next 12 months, we get to pick one. Game-changers don't come along every day. We must choose wisely.