Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Let’s call their bluff

IF THE SENATE hadn’t kept sabotaging the House’s efforts to let gubernatorial candidates pick their running mates, former Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell wouldn’t have had to sacrifice his position as the most powerful person in state government and descend to the post abandoned by the disgraced, indicted and convicted former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard.

On Thursday, Mr. McConnell used what tiny bit of power lieutenant governors have to save the House’s latest effort from its usual fate, applying a strict standard to rule several poison-pill amendments out of order.

Let’s call that poetic justice.

But let’s not stop there.

Let’s call it opportunity.

And call their bluff.

“They” being those senators who get so very reform-minded every time they take up a House-passed measure to give the governor a little bit of power.

Like Democratic Sen. Brad Hutto, who spearheaded Thursday’s effort to amend the lieutenant governor legislation to also ask voters to let the governor appoint the superintendent of education.

To be clear, the governor ought to appoint the person who runs the Department of Education, rather than forcing voters to do that. That’s far more important than letting gubernatorial candidates pick their running mates. The state has no more important duty than to provide a good education to the next generation, yet the governor — the person we elect ostensibly to lead our state — has no control over the superintendent of education. No realistic way to implement whatever education vision she articulated in the campaign.

The problem is that the Senate has never done anything to suggest it has the stomach for that, and even though the House has often passed legislation to make the change, senators suspect representatives only vote for it because they know the Senate will kill it. There’s a lot of that sort of gamesmanship at the State House, doubly so when it comes to empowering governors, and it is both bicameral and bipartisan.

As Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin reminded his colleagues in asking Mr. McConnell to rule the amendment non-germane to the lieutenant governor legislation: “The best way to kill any legislation is to load it up” with amendments that make it unpalatable, to say, in effect “if you like this medicine, I’ll give you something you’ll really like.”

Mr. Hutto insisted that he had truly come to understand that “we’ve had strong superintendents of education in the past, but they alone don’t have the same authority that the governor does” and that if we’re ever going to make significant progress in education “it’s going to take the leadership of a governor who cares about education, and they’re going to need the ability to put their hands and their arms around all of education, and it starts with (appointing) the superintendent.”

It’s possible that he really has come to accept this obvious truth, now that the superintendent of education is a Republican instead of a Democrat. Of course, it was a little hard to take him seriously when he started mocking Mr. Martin. He didn’t even try to hide a grin when he said, “I just want everybody to know that here we are on the cusp of having real reform, we were about to have all the reform you can stand, and you are standing in the way of that reform.”

Still, Mr. Hutto accepted a challenge to introduce stand-alone legislation to let governors appoint their education chiefs. And enough senators insisted they would join him in that effort that it’s hard to see how the Senate could possibly come short of the 30 votes needed to advance a constitutional amendment without showing themselves to be as hypocritical as … oh, let’s not go there.

Ah. If only there were time to get that done with just 18 days left in the legislative session.

Fortunately, there is. As Mr. Martin pointed out, the Senate doesn’t have to start from scratch. The House already passed a stand-alone measure to add the education question to this fall’s ballot, and Mr. Martin’s committee approved it on April 20 — 2011. It has been dying a slow death on the Senate calendar because a Senate rule allows a single senator to block debate of a bill; there are actually two blocking H.3070, Democratic Sens. John Scott and Robert Ford.

More fortunate still, the Senate can override the single-senator veto with a two-thirds vote. Which gives Mr. Hutto and all the other senators who say they support this effort an opportunity to demonstrate their sincerity.

On Tuesday, right after they all give the lieutenant governor measure final approval, Mr. Hutto can make the motion to set H.3070 for special order in its place. Or he can vote with Mr. Martin when he makes that motion. The people of South Carolina are ready for reform.

Let’s see how much the Senate can stand.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571

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