I WAS WRITING this week about all the things the Legislature needs to do — from fixing our roads and overhauling our tax system to putting some teeth in our ethics law and reforming our judicial-selection system — when I found myself overwhelmed by the feeling that this was just too much to expect from a Legislature. Even if it were a Legislature that was in agreement that 1) those were all problems and 2) it was the Legislature’s job to solve them. Which ours isn’t.
There was nothing on the list that I hadn’t described before, many times, and yet it felt … different. Maybe you felt the same way as you read today’s editorial. Maybe it was because I had cast the to-do list in terms of “problems to fix” rather than the more sterile “issues to address.” It is, after all, more daunting to be asked to fix a problem than merely to address an issue.
As I wrestled with this uncomfortable feeling, Jesus’ parable about the faithful servant popped into my head. Well, not the parable, actually; I just remembered the punch line: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
And before I could finish processing the idea that our Legislature has been given so very much — power, that is — I recalled St. Peter’s response when Jesus asked the 12 if they were going to abandon him, as other followers had done. “Lord,” he responded, “to whom can we go?”
Which is to say: You’re the only game in town. We have no alternative.
Sort of like any of us who want anything of significance done in South Carolina.
Oh, individuals and businesses and churches and civic groups can nibble around the edges, making a positive difference here and there on a very small scale. And they and we need to. But if we want our crumbling highway system repaired, if we want poor children educated, if we want to reduce the incidence of domestic violence, if we want a coherent tax system and a government that works to accomplish things rather than to undermine itself, we have to go through the Legislature.
And it’s not simply a matter of having to go through the government. That’s the case just about anywhere you want to deal with those macro problems. It’s a matter of having go through the Legislature.
Unlike people in most states, we can’t turn to our cities and counties to solve the big problems, even on a small scale, because the Legislature has emasculated them. Sharply limited how and how much they can raise taxes. Ordered them to provide state services and enforce state laws without sufficient state dollars. Restricted their ability to control land use and annexation and even billboards, much less quality-of-life issues.
The Legislature has slowly given over a bit of authority to the governor, but we still can’t turn to the governor to solve problems through state agencies, because she doesn’t control more than a handful of them, and the Legislature stands ready to yank even those few back into line if they get too aggressive about solving problems the Legislature hasn’t ordered them to solve.
We have to go through the Legislature to address any significant problems because the Legislature, since before South Carolina was even a state, has concentrated power within itself. Even as it has outgrown its capacity to effectively administer that power, it has retained it, horded it, jealously guarded it from all potential rivals. And no, “rivals” isn’t too strong a word to describe how the Legislature looks at any entity that tries to accomplish anything independently.
The problem is compounded by the Legislature’s operating rules, which hamstring its best efforts. Tax changes must originate in the House, but the House committee that writes tax law also writes the budget, and it is consumed by that in the first three months and the final weeks of the six-month session. Half of the senators serve on the Senate committee that does taxes and the budget, and that panel is consumed by budget-writing for the last half of the session, so it doesn’t have the time or energy to deal with any significant tax changes by the time the House gets around to sending them over.
Meantime, a single senator can block debate on a bill unless a super-majority of senators votes to put it on priority status. That doesn’t sound too daunting, but there are only six priority slots, and because a determined opponent can drag out debate on a bill for weeks, the Senate might not debate more than a dozen priority bills a session. That raises the bar for what senators are willing to put on priority status.
In practical terms, this means that our only shot at tax reform is within a roads bill that the governor will veto. It means that even though a majority of senators are said to now support a real ethics-reform law, the Senate might not take up the House-passed ethics bill, because not all of those senators are committed enough to give it a priority spot. Ditto domestic violence, if the House passes a House bill rather than amending the bill the Senate already passed.
If we end the session with the same problems we started with, at least you know who to blame: the only game in town.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.