IT OUGHT TO BE a simple matter: If you pay someone else’s bills, you get some say over how that someone acts. It works that way for parents and for business owners and, sometimes perhaps more than it should, for people who donate money to charitable organizations and, yes, politicians.
It most certainly works that way for the Legislature.
State agencies know that if the Legislature doesn’t like the way they’re doing their jobs, it can yank them into line by taking away their money, or their authority. It can do this even if the agency is supposed to be insulated from politics — like, say, the State Ethics Commission. It can do this even if the agency is headed by an independently elected state official, be it the treasurer or the governor.
This is, after all, the Legislative State.
But don’t confuse “legislative” for “a body that legislates.” That’s a capital “L,” as in The Legislature. If you’re simply a lowercase legislative body — say, a county council — there is no such broad power, even in your own county. The Legislature tells you what services you have to provide, often at what level. In some cases, the Legislature decides who runs agencies and how much money they receive — not from the state, of course, but from the county. Too many laws to count make that clear.
If it wasn’t clear enough, the Senate took out an insurance policy last month, in a high-stakes dispute about this power. Unless the House or the governor objects, Richland County will be forced to choose between losing state funding and paying unlimited legal bills for the Richland County Election Commission, over which it exercises precisely zero control.
Here’s what’s so awful about the proviso that the Senate voted unanimously to attach to the state budget: As wrong as it is, it’s hard to argue with what it says. It essentially says that counties will lose $100,000 in state funding this coming year if they refuse to pay bills that, according to a string of attorney general opinions, state law requires them to pay. That is: They must follow the rule of law.
It might not be accurate to say the Richland County Election Commission is spending money on lawsuits like a drunken sailor just because it’s not accountable to anyone. There are agencies that answer to no one yet spend money responsibly. But that happens in spite of the lack of accountability, not because of it.
The problem is that state legislators from Richland County have chosen to appoint commissioners who are irresponsible and then refused to exercise what smidgen of (indirect) control they might have over that irresponsible behavior.
So the commission lost a lawsuit and never bothered for a year and a half to even ask the County Council for the $38,000 it owed in attorney’s fees, and refused to pay the fees from its budgeted funds, and nearly got itself into contempt of court when the council didn’t immediately pay the bill.
Since then, The State’s Clif LeBlanc has discovered, things have only gotten worse: The commission owes at least $41,000 to attorneys it hired — at who knows what rates — to fight lawsuits that allege some pretty egregious behavior on the part of the commission. Records Mr. LeBlanc reviewed suggest that the commission did not legally authorize those bills, but it has voted to pay them nonetheless. Or, I should say, to send the bill to the County Council.
And instead of telling commissioners they have to get their act straight, what do Richland County legislators do? Well, Sen. John Scott introduced that proviso to change state law to ensure that there remain no consequences for such irresponsible behavior.
Perhaps the delegation would take more care about who it appointed if it had to fund the commission. (Technically, the governor appoints the commissioners, but he names whoever the county’s legislative delegation tells him to name.) And in fact, that is what should happen, indirectly.
Elections aren’t local matters that affect only people who live in a particular county. Most offices cross county lines, so we all have a stake in how well the elections are run in a given county. The elections need to be run by — and paid for by — the state of South Carolina.
Probably the best thing the County Council can do to help make that happen is to stop providing the Election Commission with a penny more than state law requires for its operations.
But that’s different from not paying those legal bills. We all have an obligation to obey the law, even if it’s a bad law; that goes double for those who hold elective office.
Now, there is no state law that says, “County councils must pay all the unreasonable bills that election commissions run up,” so it’s technically possible that a court could decide that the county doesn’t have to pay the Election Commission’s bills. But it’s usually not smart to bet against the reasoning in an attorney general’s opinion.
Besides, it doesn’t strike me as smart to use taxpayer money to run up even more legal bills in a court battle over who has to pay legal fees from earlier court battles.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.
House and Senate negotiators will decide whether to keep the Senate proviso in the state budget; if they do, Gov Henry McMaster must decide whether to leave it in or veto it. But no one is going to address the bigger problem this year.