Cindi Ross Scoppe

Prison riots, nuclear surcharge, teacher shortage all have this common root

MY CORRESPONDENT was exasperated by the whole V.C. Summer nuclear mess. “The public entities responsible for supervising the public entity were asleep at the wheel,” he wrote, “and the private entity had a guaranteed return, success or failure, so their execs skate and the SCANA shareholders get paid.”

My response began ordinarily enough, with me setting the record straight about how utility regulation works, and doesn’t work, in South Carolina: “The only entity responsible for supervising Santee Cooper was Santee Cooper's board, whose members the governor can hire but cannot fire unless they break the law. So by legislative design, there was no oversight of Santee Cooper. I have never been impressed with the PSC, but the fact is that the Legislature also tied the hands of the PSC, making it virtually impossible for the regulator to regulate SCANA.”

But then I expanded my message to the broader, and uglier, fact of life about South Carolina government: “So, like just about everything else that goes wrong in South Carolina, the blame ultimately falls to the Legislature, because the Legislature controls all power in South Carolina.”

You know the litany: keeps the executive divided in too many parts to be an effective check, keeps the judiciary under its thumb, emasculates cities and counties.

There are exceptions, of course. Directors of agencies controlled by the governor have botched the job. Recall the Revenue Department director who left the position of IT security chief vacant for a year while hackers made off with the most sensitive financial information of 5.7 million South Carolinians. Or the DSS director who focused single-mindedly on slashing welfare numbers while babies her agency was supposed to protect died of abuse and neglect. Or the Juvenile Justice director who went three years without a police chief and a year with no gang-intervention specialist or rapid-response team while gangs seized a foothold and staged violent riots.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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Oftentimes, though, even the failures are exacerbated by the Legislature’s refusal to provide agencies enough funding to do the work the Legislature requires them to do.

Around the same time I was explaining the facts of S.C. government life to my correspondent, I received a guest column from Jon Ozmint, who had run the state Corrections Department at a time when the Legislature was slashing his budget but refusing to change state laws that required him to house more and more prisoners.

Although his column was ostensibly about a former prison director, the foolishness of harsh sentences and the deadly riot at the Lee Correctional Institute, it returned in the end to that familiar theme: “Serving as director of corrections is a difficult, thankless and often impossible job where you are expected to solve problems created by bad law and bad policy, while being intentionally deprived of the necessary resources by the very Legislature that adopted those bad laws and policies.”

It is certainly true, as Gov. Henry McMaster so inartfully put it last week, that prisons are places we concentrate the most violent people in our society — and increasingly so since the Legislature passed sentencing reforms in 2010 to reduce the number of non-violent offenders we lock up. It is also true that prisoners use smuggled cell phones to facilitate crimes without and within the prisons, and it might turn out to be true that those illegal cell phones helped spread the Bishopville riot beyond the initial dormitory. And it’s possible that we’ll find out that Corrections Director Brian Sterling, or lower-level officials, made some bad policy decisions that increased the risk of rioting and extended rioting.

Ultimately, though, there weren’t enough correctional officers at Lee when the riot broke out. There weren’t enough officers to put down the riot once it started. There weren’t enough officers to keep sufficiently close watch on the prisoners before the riot erupted. There weren’t enough officers to unearth the illegal weapons and stop the cellphones and other contraband from being smuggled into the prison.

The insufficient number wasn’t the result of a scheduling or staffing mistake. South Carolina simply does not have enough correctional officers.

We don’t have enough correctional officers because we don’t pay enough or provide enough other incentives to entice people to accept the dangerous jobs we want them to perform. Just like we we don’t have enough social workers because we don’t pay enough or provide enough other incentives to entice people to accept those high-stress jobs. Just like we don’t have enough teachers in some subjects and some schools because we don’t pay enough or provide enough other incentives to entice people to take those jobs.

Gov. McMaster, like his predecessors since forever, hasn’t requested enough money for those agencies.

Ultimately, though, it’s the Legislature that passes the budget.

It’s the Legislature that decides whether increasing pay and improving job conditions is important enough to justify either raising taxes or reducing funding elsewhere.

And as The State’s Maayan Schechter reminded us over the weekend, the Legislature has decided time after time after time not to move the needle significantly on pay for any of those or other understaffed parts of our government.

Money is not in fact the root of all evil (it’s the love of money, according to St. Timothy). But in South Carolina, we do have one common root of all problems: the Legislature. And it will remain the Legislature unless or until the Legislature sees fit to stop hording power and share it with an empowered executive, and independent judiciary and uncowered local governments.

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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