THE LAST governor who controlled South Carolina’s highway department was Ibra Blackwood, whose commissioners were still in office when Gov. Olin T. Johnston succeeded him and sent his own commissioners to take over the agency. The Blackwood commissioners refused to leave, so the new governor declared the agency in a state of “rebellion, insurrection, resistance, and insurgency” and called up the National Guard, which planted machine guns at the agency’s headquarters so the holdovers couldn’t get in.
The Columbia Record’s front page screamed, in two-inch-tall letters: “GOVERNOR’S GUNS RULE HIGHWAYS.”
That was 1935, and the reign was short-lived. Within two months, the state Supreme Court had declared his recess appointments invalid and the state of emergency unlawful, and the Legislature stripped the governor of the power to appoint highway commissioners.
And for more than 80 years, state legislators have ruled the highways, under a series of systems that have been singularly successful at doing what they were designed to do: dole out road money based on parochial horse-trading, regardless of the needs of the state as a whole.
On July 1, that ends.
On July 1, for the first time since 1935, South Carolina’s governor controls what we now call the Transportation Department.
The governor had already been given the authority last summer to appoint the commissioners, but the ones in office couldn’t be removed until their terms end, and the new system was designed to let legislators dictate their replacements. A bill that became law on Wednesday after legislators overrode the governor’s veto still makes it too easy for them to block the governor’s appointments.
But a governor can use his bully pulpit to expose obstructionist legislators. A cumbersome screening process designed to trip up nominees has been removed. And come July 1, the governor can fire commissioners — for any reason or no reason at all.
That means that beginning July 1, the governor can dismiss the entire commission and bring in a whole new one, with orders to clean house. Or he can just make it clear what sort of changes he wants; he might get them without replacing anyone.
No, it’s not as simple or easy as abolishing the commission and letting the governor hire and fire the secretary of transportation. And it wouldn’t be feasible to run a whole government that way. But it is absolutely possible to control one important agency that way.
In vetoing the bill that raises the gas tax and gives him the power to fire all the commissioners at will, Gov. Henry McMaster said the gas tax already generates enough money to fix our roads, and that is not true. But he also said this, which is true: Road money is currently spent “through an inefficient, complex system of political influence and parochial patronage that fails to address our urgent needs and priorities.”
He went on to say that it was “a disservice to taxpayers to raise gas taxes for a dysfunctional system while promising efficiency, accountability and progress.” And that would be true — if the governance hadn’t changed. But it has changed.
Efficiency can take time to produce, particularly in an agency this large. But accountability? We’ve got that now. Commissioners who are fixated on bringing the best roads to their districts — they’re history. Commissioners who are committed to the old priorities — like building shiny new roads instead of fixing the ones we’ve got — they’re history. If Mr. McMaster wants them to be history.
For nearly two decades, I have advocated letting governors fire the people they hire. I’ve called out legislators who claimed they were giving governors more authority while requiring them to prove “cause” to fire the people they hired. I’ve hammered away at last year’s law that pretended to put the governor in charge of the Transportation Department but required him to get legislative permission to remove his commissioners — an even higher bar than the usual “cause” requirement. Because — regular readers have memorized this line by now — if your boss can’t fire you, he’s not your boss.
But even after the Senate voted a week and a half ago to let the governor fire his commissioners, I don’t think I fully appreciated the magnitude of this one change. I was so focused on removing the obstacles to gubernatorial appointments that I hadn’t thought through how easily a governor could maneuver around them — if he will appoint unassailable commissioners and then publicly confront any legislators who try to block them.
It was only as I was sorting out the good and the bad in the House-Senate compromise on the still-flawed roads bill that it finally sank in: That one reform will reverse the Olin Johnston legacy.
I suspect this hasn’t sunk in with Gov. McMaster yet.
Soon enough, it will, and he will find himself with the authority — and the responsibility — that no governor in our state has ever had. He will have the power to set a new tone, transform the focus of an agency that decides every year how to allocate $2.1 billion — soon to be $2.7 — to maintain, repair and expand our road system.
He and future governors will be able to rule our highways once again — no guns required.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.