Cindi Ross Scoppe

These freshman state legislators are right: Blow up state government

SC Reps Katie Arrington, Micah Caskey and Jason Elliott and 20 more freshman legislators think excessive legislative power is such a problem that they’re proposing the most radical option possible for diminishing it: a state constitutional convention.
SC Reps Katie Arrington, Micah Caskey and Jason Elliott and 20 more freshman legislators think excessive legislative power is such a problem that they’re proposing the most radical option possible for diminishing it: a state constitutional convention. AP

I WAS TRYING to figure out how to write about what could be the most significant proposal at the State House in years when the head of the state Democratic Party went all Catherine Templeton on us and started attacking the idea for doing all sorts of things it couldn’t possibly do even if it wanted to. Which it doesn’t.

Bless his heart.

I mean, if it weren’t for Trav Robertson’s delusional (or deliberately deceptive, or embarrassingly ignorant) rant, how could I get anybody to read about legislation proposed by most freshman legislators to blow up South Carolina’s government and start over?

Actually, now that I put it that way, maybe that’s something you would find interesting.

But here we are, so let me explain Mr. Robertson’s attempt to inject himself into the grown-ups debate about checks and balances, accountability and why our government so often fails to serve the public good.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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Why the Legislature doesn’t have time to do its job right

What is the Legislative State?

How to dismantle the Legislative State

Spawns of the Legislative State

1993 restructuring law gave SC governors their first hint of authority

Constitution of 1895 stripped blacks, poor whites of vote, still rules SC 120 years later

The Home Rule Act that didn’t really allow home rule

The coming assault on judicial integrity

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On Thursday, Rep. Micah Caskey announced that he and 25 of the other 34 freshman legislators wanted to call a state constitutional convention for the purpose of abolishing the Legislative State.

A constitutional convention is a tricky matter, which we’ll get back to in a moment. But as I have written for two decades, and more learned policy wonks have been advocating since at least 1945, we absolutely need to end the legislative hegemony that makes the governor and the judiciary subservient to the General Assembly.

We absolutely need to dismantle the form of government that was designed by the state’s colonial slaveowners to keep the royal governors in check, and refined by Ben Tillman to ensure that the state’s white minority maintained control over what was then its black majority. The government where everybody’s in charge, so nobody’s in charge … so there’s no way to hold anybody accountable for anything that goes wrong. The government that results in our state being last on so many lists where we want to be first, and first on so many lists where we want to be last. The government, as Mr. Caskey told me, that brought us schools that aren’t educating our kids as they should and an economy that’s only bouncing back in a half-dozen counties and political corruption and of course that whole V.C. Summer nuclear mess.

Since Mr. Caskey and many of the cosponsors are Republicans — and party apparatchiks on both sides are incapable of thinking much deeper than culture-war issues — the Democratic Party director ignored the clearly explained purpose of the legislation and fired off a news release declaring it an “effort to discriminate against women permanently.” He later told The Associated Press he meant that the goal was to put an abortion ban into the state constitution, even though surely even he knows that a state ban on abortion would be laughed out of court, since the U.S. Supreme Court considers that a federal matter.

It was reminiscent of and about as honest as the charge by Ms. Templeton that Gov. Henry McMaster signed the “largest tax increase in modern history.” By which she eventually had to admit she meant he signed a really expensive bill to bail out the state pension system — which did not raise any taxes.

At least when House Democratic Leader Todd Rutherford denounced the restructuring plan, he was honest enough to say he doesn’t think governors need any more power. Which might make sense if they had more power than the Legislature. But they don’t. They don’t have anywhere near as much.

The executive branch of government is still divided among nine separately elected officials (soon dropping to … seven) and dozens of unaccountable, part-time boards, some appointed by the Legislature and others still effectively controlled by the Legislature. And the Legislature controls who can run for judicial positions and then elects the judges, for fixed terms so they have to get legislators’ blessing every few years to retain their positions.

After the protests from party leaders, one Democratic House member withdrew as a co-sponsor of H.5043; four others kept their names on it, along with 13 Republicans; five Republicans and one Democrat introduced the companion S.1069 in the Senate. One Democrat and one Republican on Mr. Caskey’s original list of supporters never signed onto the bills.

I give you these details because what’s significant is not the legislation itself. It will not pass this year, it may never pass, and I’m not certain that it should ever pass, because I’m not sure anyone can control even what is discussed at a constitutional convention.

What is significant, hugely significant, is that most of our state’s first-term legislators have decided that South Carolina’s biggest problem is that the Legislature has too much power. And they have concluded that the problem is so dire that it warrants the most radical solution they can think of — within the confines of statutory and constitutional law — because the Legislature is not going to voluntarily relinquish a significant amount of power.

What is significant is that these freshmen understand that this whole exercise is a waste of time unless they make voters understand that their frustration and anger about our state’s failures is a result of the way our government is structured. They say they are willing to invest the energy and resources and time to do that.

If they succeed, we won’t need to take a chance on a constitutional convention, because the Legislature will make the changes itself.

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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