A FEW DAYS ago I wrote my personal good-byes. Today, in my final column as The State’s associate editor, I want to focus one last time on the changes South Carolina needs to make in order to become the amazing place it can be. The place where all of us want to raise our families, the place our children and grandchildren want to call home, the place where smart, talented people want to build their businesses and bring their families.
We have that potential because we are blessed with abundant natural resources and warm and welcoming people who are honest and hard-working. But more often than not, we seem determined not to put those resources to their best use.
Regular readers are familiar with this vision for South Carolina, and the policies I believe can help animate it. They have been the focus of my professional life for 20 years, and they bear repeating one last time:
▪ Make sure poor kids get a decent education. Too many people dismiss this idea as bleeding-heart compassion; they say parents should take responsibility. They’re right. But it’s also a hard-nosed economic necessity: Kids who don’t get a good education don’t get good jobs, many become a financial burden on the rest of us, some become criminals who prey on us; they prevent us from offering the skilled workforce that businesses need. We will not become that destination state and we will remain the butt of jokes as long as we do not empower them to become a productive part of our economy.
It’s not easy to educate children whose parents can’t or won’t support that effort. But it’s not impossible. We can find a way to do that if our lawmakers and our governor finally accept the fact that educating them is far and away their most important job.
▪ Restructure state government. It is essential that we put our limited financial resources to the greatest good. But the very structure of our government makes this nearly impossible, because its many parts don’t work as a cohesive whole. Worse, there is little accountability and barely more than lip service paid to the checks and balances that the founders brilliantly designed to keep government honest.
The Legislature elects the members of the Supreme Court. It splits control of the executive branch among seven independently elected officials, which dilutes the power of the governor. It divides the rest of the executive branch into more than 100 separate agencies — which would be too many for a governor to effectively control and coordinate even if so many of them weren’t independent fiefdoms, unaccountable to the governor or anyone else. But many of them are unaccountable — among them, perhaps most disastrously in recent years, Santee Cooper.
There are many good and well-meaning people in the Legislature. But legislative government is not good government: When everybody is in charge, no one is responsible. Lawmakers need to share authority to appoint judges with the governor. They need to consolidate state agencies, put them fully under the control of the governor and reduce the number of statewide elected officials.
All of us can contribute directly to this reform when we are asked in November to amend the state constitution to let the governor appoint the state superintendent of education. This will force governors to make public education a priority, and give them the authority to implement many of their promises. Please vote yes.
▪ Fix our tax system. Our tax system is a nonsensical concoction of special-interest favors that is more loophole than whole. That’s most obvious in our sales tax, where we exempt more sales than we tax — which means we could cut the tax rate in half if we eliminated the exemptions. The loopholes and exemptions in the income tax make our rate look much higher than it is, scaring away some businesses. And the property tax is similarly compromised.
On top of that, the system doesn’t generate enough money to keep our prisons safe or keep enough teachers in our classrooms or keep college tuition affordable or to perform so many other basic functions that we count on our government to perform. Perhaps that’s a budgeting problem, but for decades the Legislature has refused to solve it by reprioritizing its spending. That leaves the options of increasing taxes or continuing to fail us.
We need to figure out what services our government needs to provide, how much that will cost and the best way to raise that money — then create a whole new tax system to accomplish that. The final part of that effort needs to focus on creating a well-balanced system (like a well-balanced portfolio) that has few loopholes and thus lower rates.
▪ Free our local governments. The council members who run South Carolina’s cities and counties are elected by at least as many voters as our legislators — often more. But our all-knowing Legislature dictates how those cities and counties must spend tax money, how they can collect it and how much they can collect. It tells them what rules they can adopt (or, more frequently, not adopt) for their communities. It makes it nearly impossible for cities to expand to their natural size or to operate efficiently. All of which makes it difficult to hold city and county council members accountable for their decisions.
The Legislature needs to make it easier for local governments to consolidate and annex, and get rid of the more than 500 special purpose districts that make it less efficient and more expensive to provide local services. It needs to let local governments decide their own tax rates and the land-use and other rules that most of the country acknowledges are best left to government closest to the people.
For the past 127 years, stretching back through my dear friends Brad Warthen and Tom McLean, through Bill Rone and many people I never had the privilege to know, The State newspaper’s editorial board has tried to be, in the words of its founder and first editor, N.G. Gonzales, a friend to this city and state, “independent in its judgment and its utterances, holding no man exempt from just criticism, and none beneath just praise.” It was my sad fate but great honor to have been the final link in that chain.
Godspeed, South Carolina. I wish you all the best. You have such tremendous potential. Please live up to it.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.