FOR MORE THAN two decades, The State’s editorial board has started each year with an editorial laying out the things the Legislature most needed to do in the coming session.
But the V.C. Summer nuclear debacle made this year so different from any year before — and the challenges embedded in that mess so different from everything else that needs to be addressed — that the all-inclusive editorial just didn’t feel right. Instead, I wrote a column about each of the top challenges. So if you scroll through my columns from the past month, you might figure out which ones are part of that agenda-setting effort, and which ones aren’t. Or you might not.
So, a month into the session but all in one place, here are the things it’s most important for the Legislature to do this year to make South Carolina the kind of place where we all want to live out our lives, where visitors want to move and where businesses will want to locate and expand, to provide the jobs and in turn the quality of life that will make our children and grandchildren want to remain or return here.
▪ Fix our utility regulatory system. The whole mind-boggling mess that is the V.C. Summer nuclear construction project is a microcosm of much that is broken about our state government: The Legislature passes a law it doesn’t understand, because people it trusts — who happen to provide lots of campaign donations to legislators — promise it does something the Legislature wants. Because of the Legislature’s refusal to empower anyone but itself to do anything important, the people who are supposed to make sure the law works either aren’t allowed to do the jobs they need to do or can’t be held accountable for their failures, or both. Fixing those root causes are the most important things the Legislature could do this year.
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▪ Reduce the damage to SCE&G customers. The challenge for legislators is to determine the most relief they can get for SCE&G customers without derailing Dominion Energy’s merger with SCANA. Or, if they do derail the merger, getting the most relief without crippling SCANA. Or provoking a lawsuit that our state would spend an obscene amount of time and money fighting and likely lose.
▪ Reduce the damage to Santee Cooper customers. Unlike SCANA, Santee Cooper doesn’t have shareholders who could be called on to shoulder more of the costs of the $9 billion nuclear debacle, so the only options are to make spending cuts at Santee Cooper, make taxpayers pick up some of the cost and sell some or all of Santee Cooper. The first option absolutely must be done, though I doubt it’ll make much difference. The second is grossly unfair to everyone who isn’t a Santee Cooper customer and should be a non-starter. The third one: Well, that depends.
▪ Make sure poor SC kids get a decent education. Probably the biggest challenge our state faces — and certainly our biggest education challenge — is providing all children with a decent education. I don’t know exactly how to get kids more interested in learning or the best teachers more interested in teaching the students who need them most. But I know that even those of us who were blessed with good educations will suffer as long as a large portion of children in our state fail to receive a decent education, because those children will fail. And when they fail, they will consume government services that the rest of us will pay for. And they will produce another generation that follows in their footsteps. The first step to answering those difficult questions is for the Legislature to recognize that it has to do this … and to acknowledge that it owns the schools … and to start acting like it.
▪ Fix our tax system, or at least don’t make it worse. The governor’s campaign for income tax cuts threatens to drown out any talk about actual tax reform, which we need and have needed for years and will continue to need until the Legislature finally decides to overhaul our entire antiquated, loophole-riddled, special-interest driven tax system. That effort needs to focus on creating a well-balanced system (like a well-balanced portfolio) that has few loopholes and thus lower rates.
▪ End legislative dominance of South Carolina. 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. 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. It won’t release its stranglehold on cities and counties. And more.
▪ Fix our ethics laws, or at least the ones that were exposed as failures or about which questions have been raised in the legislative corruption investigation. Convicted former Rep. Rick Quinn admitted to doing a lot of things that he insists were perfectly legal. Unfortunately, his guilty plea to other things leaves a lot of questions about what is and isn’t prohibited by South Carolina’s ethics law. The Legislature needs to answer those questions this year, in most if not all cases by making sure they are illegal — and giving regulators better tools to catch illegal actions.
▪ End the government secrecy. The Legislature needs to prohibit any government agency from entering into any sort of non-disclosure agreement. It needs to make it clear that legislative caucuses are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, just like other entities that receive government support. And it needs to clarify what qualifies for two of the most abused exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act: the “attorney-client” and “personal privacy” exemptions, neither of which is nearly as broad as many governmental entities pretend they are. Technically this wasn’t part of the “Setting the Agenda” series, but that’s only because I published it before I started the series. Otherwise, it probably would have been.
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.