Cindi Ross Scoppe

This last-minute vote could be a game-changer for SC education. We never saw it coming

Molly Spearman could be South Carolina’s last elected superintendent of education under legislation she helped convince the General Assembly to pass. Here, she is hugged by Nursery Road Elementary School Spanish teacher Vanessa Torres.
Molly Spearman could be South Carolina’s last elected superintendent of education under legislation she helped convince the General Assembly to pass. Here, she is hugged by Nursery Road Elementary School Spanish teacher Vanessa Torres. tglantz@thestate.com

AN EXCITING ending to the annual legislative session usually means it’s down to the wire for a major bill … holding your breath, waiting to see whether the Senate (it’s always the Senate) will find the courage, and the votes, to stop a loquacious senator’s superfluous speechifying soon enough to take that crucial final vote. Before the clock strikes the mandatory adjournment hour of 5 p.m.

(Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman reminded me Thursday about that time one of his predecessors sent the clerk up into the balcony to stop the Senate clock, and the body stayed in session two hours after state law required it to quit.)

In my three decades of final days, “exciting” has never meant that a bill that had been left for dead more than a year ago, a bill dragged out of hospice two days earlier and barely breathing, a bill whose obituary had already been written, would suddenly pass. That the Senate’s most prolific talk-it-to-death senator — in the midst of talking it to official death, and bragging that supporters couldn’t stop him — would suddenly interrupt himself by saying, essentially, let’s vote on it. And that, after having just said it didn’t have the needed 30 votes to pass, he would say, let’s make sure it gets the votes it needs. And that it would.

But that’s precisely what happened Thursday, as the unstopped hands on the clock in the front of the Senate chamber edged their way inexorably toward 5.

Except that technically it wasn’t a bill. It was a joint resolution, which for technical reasons is what is used instead of a bill to authorize a constitutional referendum.

And thanks to that bizarre ending, a constitutional referendum will be held in November to ask us to amend the state constitution to allow governors to appoint the education superintendent.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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Could the governor pick SC education superintendent? That’s up to 4 senators

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SC Gov. McMaster says schools chief should be appointed

Editorial: Let governor appoint education superintendent

Dismantling the Legislative State, in four easy steps

Voter guide: Who’s running for governor, other statewide offices this year

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Take that in, because most of you did not see that coming. Did not realize it was even a theoretical possibility.

I was right there with you two weeks ago, when I got word from Speaker Jay Lucas that the House’s May 1 vote to pass S.27, spelling out professional requirements for an appointed education superintendent, wasn’t a meaningless exercise. That he had assurances that in return for that vote, the Senate was going to pass H.3146, the constitutional referendum that the House had sent to the Senate in February. Of 2017.

Our Legislature divided the executive branch between nine statewide elected offices so the governor could not be an effective check on it.

To say this is the most important thing the Legislature did this year does not quite do it justice. Reformers have been trying to get this on the ballot since 1991, when then-Gov. Carroll Campbell, launched his campaign to overhaul our government that answered to no one. Every serious analysis of the government has recommended this, going back a century. Not this alone, of course. All of the studies (Sen. Tom Young put the number at six, although I think he left out a few) recommended abandoning the 18th-century tradition of holding public elections for a long list of executive officials and instead allowing the governor to appoint nearly all state agency directors.

One reason to make the change is to get us closer to having three co-equal branches of government. Our Legislature divided the executive branch between nine statewide elected offices in order to prevent this. Although the Legislature recently allowed governors to appoint the lieutenant governor and adjutant general, the education superintendent was always the holy grail, because 40 percent of the state budget goes to education.

Forcing voters to decide all of those statewide elections (on top of federal, legislative and local races) also guarantees that most offices won’t get the attention they need. And not only do we know too little about the candidates for these down-ballot races, but any time we spend on them leaves us less time to study the more important races.

It will force the governor to own education; it will let the governor fire a bad superintendent; it will open the position to a lot of great candidates who aren’t willing to put themselves through an election.

There’s a much longer list of reasons we’d be better off with an appointed superintendent — among them, it will force the governor to own education; it will let the governor fire a bad superintendent; it will open the position to a lot of great candidates who aren’t willing to put themselves through an election. And I will be writing about those reasons between now and November.

But for now, let me fill in the skimpiest of details of how this happened.

On Tuesday, the Senate Rules Committee voted to jump the superintendent legislation ahead of other contested bills. After a brief debate, Sen. Gerald Malloy essentially told his fellow opponents that they should allow a vote rather than filibustering, because the measure didn’t have the 30 votes, two-thirds of the Senate, that it needed to go on the ballot. He was right. The vote was 26-6, with a couple of senators absent and the rest refusing to vote, which has the effect of voting no.

This was the result of ‘a bipartisan good-faith effort’ going back more than a year, which intensified in the final days of the session.

There was still one more chance to get 30 votes, on third reading, but only if opponents didn’t delay getting back to the legislation. Just before 3 on Thursday afternoon, they allowed the debate to resume.

But Sen. Malloy was back, telling supporters they didn’t have enough votes to make him stop talking, much less to meet the two-thirds requirement. Twenty minutes before adjournment, he started talking about the Senate’s traditions of working across party lines and the need to be bigger than our differences and broken hearts and conversations he had had with supporters. He then cleared the way for that final vote. Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey told me later that this was the result of “a bipartisan good-faith effort” going back more than a year, which intensified in the final days of the session.

At 4:55 p.m., the lieutenant governor announced that the measure had passed by a vote of 38-6.

And come November, we’ll all get to vote.

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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