Cindi Ross Scoppe

How SC government is like the 12 Days of Christmas

It might not be so bad if South Carolina’s government were as well choreographed as the 12 drummers drumming or nine ladies dancing or if it sounded as good as a partridge in a pear tree. It isn’t, and it doesn’t.
It might not be so bad if South Carolina’s government were as well choreographed as the 12 drummers drumming or nine ladies dancing or if it sounded as good as a partridge in a pear tree. It isn’t, and it doesn’t.

THINK OF SOUTH Carolina’s government as a truncated “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Except without the cadence. Or the coded messages. Or the coherence.

We have 10 separate state agencies that provide health services.

Eight environmental agencies.

Seven literary and cultural agencies.

Six agencies that handle administrative functions of state government (or maybe eight, or nine, depending on which ones you include).

Five agencies providing public education programs.

Four economic development agencies.

Three separate agencies that deal with convicted criminals.

Two state police agencies.

One — well we’ve got more ones than you want to try to count.

And of course 33 state-run colleges and universities.

You KNOW you want to hear the song now

The total number of state agencies is hard to get a handle on, but it is not small.

The state budget funds about 110 separate entities; a few are in the legislative and judicial branches, but most are in the executive branch, and surprisingly, most are controlled — usually indirectly — by the governor. Some counts put the number higher than 110, some lower, but no matter which you pick, it’s too high to be effectively managed and coordinated, particularly since most are run by part-time boards.

And now the Legislature is poised to create a whole new agency: the Department of Aging.

Unlike in 2012 and 2014, when creating four new agencies was the cost for giving the governor control of the Department of Administration, this is not about doing something bad in order to get enough votes to do something good. This is about refusing to acknowledge that there is a better solution.

What is now called the Office on Aging used to be a stand-alone state agency, but it was one of about 60 that got consolidated in the 1993 government restructuring. It didn’t get consolidated smartly — it was plopped down in the middle of the governor’s office — but it did get consolidated. A few years later the Legislature moved it to the Department of Health and Human Services. That was where people who spent a lot of time studying the organization of our state government had concluded it should be, along with a lot of other agencies that were instead left as stand-alone entities.

Then in 2004, some local councils on aging became annoyed with Health and Human Services and lobbied to be moved back into the governor’s office. At the same time, then-Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer was looking for a way to endear himself to a large voting bloc for his thankfully unsuccessful bid for higher office, so he convinced the Legislature to move the Office on Aging into his office.

But now that the Legislature is about to make the lieutenant governor’s office a division of the governor’s office (owing to how, starting in 2018, gubernatorial candidates will select their running mates), something has to be done with the Office on Aging. Again.

And the House and the Senate both said, “separate new agency!” As if we don’t already have enough of those.

I realize that our population is aging, and I am all for making it easier for seniors to stay in their homes. That’s the main goal of the county-level councils on aging that the Office on Aging coordinates. Maybe if the Legislature had pulled together all the services that state agencies provide to the elderly under one umbrella agency, that would make some sense. But that’s not what happened. Aging-related services will still be provided by “many other state agencies,” as the Office on Aging puts it on its website, and the new Department on Aging will continue to “coordinate” all those services.

Yes, S.107 does technically get rid of one entity (the lieutenant governor’s stand-alone office), so the bill to move the lieutenant governor’s office into the governor’s office and create the Department on Aging won’t actually increase the number of stand-alone entities in government. So if we weren’t overrun by these things, it might be acceptable. But we are overrun by the things.

A 1991 study commissioned by then-Gov. Carroll Campbell concluded that what it counted as 145 independent agencies at the time “constitute a span of control that is untenable.” Two years later, that number was reduced by more than a third (largely by cramming 40 professional licensing agencies into one agency, where they still operate autonomously). But the result was still too many agencies to manage. And too many agencies doing similar things in an uncoordinated way. And we’ve added more agencies since then.

We really don’t need to add yet another one.

House and Senate negotiators are haggling over a small difference in the bills they passed this year to move the lieutenant governor into the governor’s office. If they reach an agreement when they meet Tuesday morning, legislators will be asked to pass the compromise bill as soon as they return to town to vote on the budget. They should say no.

They should tell the conferees to move the Office on Aging back into the Department of Health and Human Services, where it belongs. Better still, move it back into that agency along with the Commission for the Blind and the departments of Vocational Rehabilitation and Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services and Mental Health and several other related agencies, as Gov. Campbell’s commission (and so many others before and after it) recommended.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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