I GOT A NOTE Monday from a reader who wanted to add another element to my analogy comparing the Senate Republicans’ road plan to a homeowner who takes money out of her living expenses account and puts it into the repair account to buy a new roof.
What if you also had an account for car payments and repairs, he asked, “and instead of using that account to keep the car in dependable working order you blew the money on wine, women and song.”
This, he suggested, is the situation at the Transportation Department: “You still have the necessary funds coming in, 1.6 billion total annually, to effect repairs, if you apply them to maintenance. If you look at the numbers, once you subtract mass transit and NEW projects you’re down to about $500 million annually for maintenance to get us up to speed.”
A few hours later, I talked to a member of the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank board, who suggested that the Transportation Department and the rest of state government squander enough money to pay for the $400 million or so we need every year to keep our roads from deteriorating further. Now, the Infrastructure Bank is hardly known for spending our tax dollars wisely, so I found myself wondering how much of that was knee-jerk anti-government rhetoric and how much the sort of comment that might rightly be met with: Holy cow; if even he thinks this agency is wasteful, it must be a sieve.
Whatever the answer, it’s easy enough to find people who say we don’t need any more money to maintain our roads and bridges, and even improve them. Maybe you’re one of them.
Feedback on five
If you actually have some basis for that opinion — if it doesn’t simply come from reading the spin of people whose priority above all else is to cut taxes — now would be a good time to share it. Through May 30, the House’s new Legislative Oversight Committee is conducting an online survey to get public feedback about the Transportation Department and four other state agencies.
Indeed, now would be a good time to share what you know about the other agencies as well: the departments of Social Services and of Juvenile Justice, the comptroller general’s office and First Steps to School Readiness. The panel doesn’t promise to look into every tip, but it says that the answers “may help direct the Committee to potential areas for improvement with these agencies.”
The survey is anonymous and quick and easy — there are three multiple-choice questions and one question asking for concerns or suggestions on each agency — and you can take it at the Oversight Committee’s web site.
Maybe the survey is nothing more than a PR effort, or maybe it’s an honest attempt to cast a wide net to make sure the committee doesn’t miss anything. It’s too soon to know, since this is the first effort to comply with the new mandate the Legislature gave itself when it turned control of most central administrative functions of government over to the governor: Along with giving governors some of the tools they need to start acting like governors, the Legislature required itself to start acting like a legislature, specifically by conducting regular audits of state agencies.
The most obvious purpose of this new legislative oversight duty is to root out the sort of problems that the Legislative Audit Council and the inspector general look for in state agencies — inefficiency, mismanagement, corruption. But unlike those other audits, which occur when someone already suspects a problem, these are supposed to help alert the Legislature to potential problems before they become crises, which will mark a monumental improvement in the way we do government in South Carolina if the result is that the Legislature actually … addresses potential problems before they become crises.
I’ve always considered the other purpose even more important: to help legislators better understand the agencies they create, fund and give direction to. The idea is to alert legislators to whether the laws they pass are working and, if they’re not, whether that’s because the agency is refusing or doesn’t have the resources to implement them or (at least as likely) because the laws aren’t workable. It is, ultimately, to give more legislators the information they need to make better decisions about how to fund state agencies, how to combine or separate or abolish state agencies, and what sorts of laws they ought to pass.
The House reduced its potential to meet this second mandate by creating a single committee to handle all the audits rather than divvying them up among the standing committees that already deal with the agencies — a decision Speaker Jay Lucas says will make the audits more consistent and easier for the public to keep track of.
The Senate has a single staff to focus on the audits but has divided agencies among its committees, with the result being that even with its first batch of six agencies, as many as half of the 46 senators will be involved directly in the oversight reviews.
Right now, the staff is gathering information from those agencies — the departments of Mental Health and of Employment and Workforce, the Forestry Commission, Office on Aging, State Museum Commission and Administrative Law Court — in a process that Senate Clerk Jeff Gossett told me is tailored to help the staff learn how best to get the information it needs from agencies. Plans are for senators to get involved in a more public process by late summer.
Two kinds of waste
As for the Transportation Department, I tend to believe that the House’s ad hoc Transportation Committee knew what it was talking about when it concluded that we need to spend an additional $400 million a year just to keep our roads and bridges from getting any worse. As much as people like to complain about mass transit and beautification projects, most if not all of that is paid for by federal funds that can’t be spent on anything else.
Now, I have no doubt that there’s waste there — just as there is waste at any state agency, just as there is waste in any private business — and that’s something that people need to let the House oversight committee know about.
But there’s a difference between an agency spending money inefficiently and an agency’s legislatively appointed commission trying to throw money down the rathole of a new interstate that will never get built.
The Legislature doesn’t need another audit to learn about the rathole sort of waste. It just needs to put an end to it, by passing a fix-it-first law and requiring that all new projects be selected based entirely on objective criteria and by letting the governor control the agency rather than maintaining a system that encourages parochialism and vote-trading that results in that rathole spending.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.