A HOUSE member pulled me aside when lawmakers were back in town last month and started reeling off preliminary Census numbers that he hoped would alarm me: The growth in our state, he explained, is all north of I-85 and south of I-95, which means the next reapportionment will leave the Midlands even weaker politically than Midlands lawmakers long have complained about being.
He warned that unless legislators stop bickering about Lexington vs. Richland county and start working together - both with each other and with the rest of the counties between the two interstates - the whole area will be left behind.
I recalled that conversation when I read about the new effort by Francis Marion and S.C. State officials to unite the fractured local leadership in the I-95 corridor. That's needed, according to a report the state helped pay for, in order to lift up the poverty stricken area, commonly referred to as the Corridor of Shame.
If it stopped there, I wouldn't quibble, and I wouldn't have hearkened back to the "Save the Midlands" conversation. As my colleague Warren Bolton recently wrote in a column about this same study, the idea of local leaders setting aside their parochial, personal, partisan and quite frequently petty differences to work together toward common interests is sound, no matter what the area being described.
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But it didn't stop there. As far as many are concerned, the imperative for working together is to squeeze more money out of the Legislature.
Now, there's no denying that territorialism plays a huge role in the way money gets distributed at the State House, which means the larger and more powerful the group pushing for funding for a particular territory or project, the better the chance of success. And in fact, while the House member who didn't want his name associated with the plea for Richland and Lexington lawmakers to bring in the rest of the Midlands to work together was trying to appeal to my ivory-tower instincts by talking about "regional cooperation," he was unabashed about the end goal: to make sure we get what's rightfully ours. Likewise, in an article in our paper describing the PeeDee effort, Sen. John Matthews matter-of-factly described the horse-trading that is required to get funding to a region.
So in both cases, the plea for regional unity manages to both follow the principles of good governance and make sense from a purely practical perspective. Still, there's something very wrong, very counterproductive and even self-defeating with this picture.
South Carolina is a small state with few resources and big problems that won't be solved by a Pauline region getting paid off at the expense of a Petrine region. Do we need to be doing more to make sure the PeeDee doesn't get left even further behind? Of course we do. But the PeeDee suffers in part because resources - not just financial but also intellectual and social and political - get diverted to the Upstate and the suburbs and the coast. What do we accomplish if we merely flip that pattern?
When BMW comes to the Upstate, the whole state benefits.
When Boeing comes to the Lowcountry, the whole state benefits (or so we hope).
Likewise, when poverty gnaws away at the health and the hope of the PeeDee, when good teachers aren't willing to make the personal sacrifices required to move to a mostly rural, in some sectors dying, region, and the school leaders are too often simply not willing or capable of running the schools well, and the kids don't have a prayer of getting the sort of education that kids in Lexington 1 or Richland 2 take for granted, the whole state suffers.
And until all of our legislators - and all of our leaders at every level of government - begin to understand that, all the regional cooperation in the world is not going to move our whole state forward significantly.
I do not pretend to have an answer for how we fix what ails the PeeDee, and I'm glad that S.C. State and Francis Marion are putting their intellectual muscle behind that. To borrow a quickly tiring cliche, if this were easy, it already would have been done.
But I know what won't work:
Pitting region against region and wasting valuable energy that could be used to lift up all the boats instead of just those on the strongest creek.
Forming more committees to buy yet more studies that just get ignored because their recommendations require making somebody unhappy.
Hanging onto this cognitive dissonance that says we have a crisis because the smart would-be leaders have abandoned the region while at the same time expecting that those left behind will turn around the schools if the folks in Columbia just keep tweaking or even overhauling the school mandates. (And no, it won't work to try that other idea, paying parents to send their kids to private schools. If that approach could work anywhere, it would be in affluent areas and in densely populated areas - the very antithesis of the PeeDee.)
In short, what won't work is continuing to do what we've always done. And to tweak an already-tired cliche, that's not just insane; it's suicidal.