I’VE SUDDENLY become quite popular with stock analysts, who are struggling to figure out whether the Legislature is going to meet Dominion Energy’s demand that it be allowed to keep charging ratepayers for SCE&G’s abandoned nuclear reactors, plus a 10 percent profit.
When I told one there was no way at this point to tell, he asked if anyone at the Public Service Commission might talk to him.
“You could try the chairman,” I responded. “But it’s the Legislature (or legislative leaders) that’s going to determine what happens, whether that happens directly through a change in the law or indirectly by essentially telling the PSC — or potentially even the court — what to do.”
His reply was quick: “That’s interesting and rather disturbing.”
More about how the Legislature controls our entire state
Welcome to South Carolina, where the Legislature controls almost everything and prevents anyone else from controlling almost everything else. It elects the members of the Supreme Court. (And Public Service Commission.) It splits control of the executive branch among seven independently elected officials, which doesn’t technically give legislators any power but does dilute the power of the governor, who, like the Supreme Court, is supposed to be co-equal to the Legislature. But isn’t.
The governor has a wider span of control than the other statewide elected officials, but the control doesn’t extend to public education, or higher education, or the Department of Health and Environmental Control, or law enforcement (despite governors’ insistence that it does). Or SCE&G’s nuclear partner, Santee Cooper. (Hold that thought.) And the part of the executive branch that the governor controls is divided among about 100 agencies; a handful are run by directors he can hire or fire, but most are run by part-time boards.
The sheer number of appointments makes it nearly impossible for a governor to actually dictate how those agencies operate, and the number of agencies creates logistical and coordination problems. So when individual legislators tell agency directors what to do, the directors tend to comply, regardless of what the governor — or even the majority of the Legislature — wants them to do.
This has contributed to a long list of problems. But since we started off talking about the V.C. Summer nuclear station, let’s recall how the Legislative State contributed to that disaster: Legislators passed a law they didn’t understand, because people they trusted promised it did something legislators wanted. Because the Legislature refuses to empower anyone but itself to do anything important, the people who were supposed to make sure the law worked either weren’t allowed to do the job they needed to do or couldn’t be held accountable for their failures, or both.
The best example of “couldn’t be held accountable” resides at Santee Cooper, where the board members are appointed by the governor, but can’t be removed unless they refuse to show up for meetings or act in ways that could land them in prison, which means they don’t work for him, or anyone. Those board members didn’t alert the governor — or state regulators, or anyone — when a company hired by SCE&G and Santee Cooper concluded that the nuclear project was massively over budget and behind schedule in large part because the utilities had not provided proper oversight.
Bad as things are, they used to be worse. The Legislature has actually made changes at the state level over the past quarter century to give the governor some power; just last year, it made it possible for the governor to control the Transportation Department. The same is not true at the local level.
For most of our history, local governments were officially controlled by the legislators from each county. That changed on paper when the Legislature passed the Home Rule Act in 1975, allowing the creation of county governments. In practice, not so much.
City and county council members are elected by the same people who elect legislators; in some cases, council members represent more people than legislators represent. Yet the Legislature never hesitates to pass laws telling those elected officials what they can’t do (raise taxes, regulate billboards, etc.) and what they must do (spend money on state services that the Legislature is supposed to help pay for but doesn’t).
Additionally, state legislators appoint important local boards such as county election commissions, and legislators maintain the autonomous special-purpose districts that were created before county councils, to do the things that cities and counties ought to do. This drives up costs, limits the ability to coordinate county and city services and, as we saw with the Richland County Recreation Commission, invites all sorts of other problems.
The solutions are obvious, but just to get them back on the record: The Legislature needs to let the governor appoint the education superintendent, agriculture commissioner, secretary of state and comptroller or treasurer, or both. It needs to consolidate related state agencies down to a reasonable number, with the governor appointing the directors. And share appointment duties with the governor for the courts and colleges and probably the PSC. And let the governor fire more of his appointees, starting with Santee Cooper board members. And it needs to dismantle special-purpose districts, turn control of county boards over to county councils, and let elected council members decide how to tax and spend and otherwise govern their counties.
These changes could, among other things, free up legislators to focus on their jobs. Beginning with making sure they understand the laws they pass.
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.