Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Minor progress and major finger-pointing at the SC State House

IF YOU COUNT not doing the really bad things it looked like you were about to do as a positive, then this was a good week for the Legislature. If you don’t grade on that curve, well, maybe it was a good week for political junkies who like to form a circle in the school yard and shout: “Fight! Fight!”

At week’s start, it had looked like the Legislature was about to hand the keys to the state Transportation Department over to the unaccountable, horse-trading commission that has been trying for seven years to wrestle the steering wheel from the governor’s transportation secretary.

Senate President Pro Tempore and Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, with an assist from Democratic Leader Nikki Setzler, had convinced all the members of the Senate Finance Committee that they would risk a government shut-down if they tried to prevent the governor from losing her authority to hire and fire the secretary.

Then on Tuesday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin offered up a plan to extend that authority for another year, to give senators time to pass a road-funding bill that absolutely must not be allowed to become law without extended gubernatorial authority, and Sen. Setzler signed on as one of seven co-sponsors.

Success cubed

One legislative leader I talked to Monday was certain that the delay in passing a budget was a ruse designed for the sole purpose of stripping the governor of authority, and yet in an instant — poof! — that threat had dissipated. Not a single senator spoke against Sen. Martin’s amendment, and it was approved on a voice vote, with no apparent opposition. The next day, the House signed off on the plan, which was tacked on to a continuing resolution that will keep the government operating past July 1 if House and Senate negotiators don’t get a budget enacted by then.

So, the governor was not stripped of the tiny bit of authority she has over the Transportation Department, and contrary to the dire predictions of Sens. Leatherman and Setzler, the government will not shut down.

Meantime, the Senate managed in short order to pass a budget-related bill that had been hung up in a three-week filibuster that was preventing budget negotiations from commencing, thus threatening the shut-down. And as with the Transportation Department danger, the avalanche of amendments that had been threatened to hold up the budget-related bill evaporated into the hot air.

Across the hall, the House made one-day work of passing another budget-related bill that was holding up negotiations. The House’s success was much less surprising than the Senate’s, a reality we have witnessed all year, and one that prompted the bitter accusations and finger-pointing that seemed so terribly dramatic for a day and a half — before a gunman massacred a beloved state senator and eight of his praying parishioners.

The blameless House?

That acrimony seems much less dramatic now than it did at the time, but it still demands some discussion.

House Speaker Jay Lucas was spot on when he blamed the Senate for the legislative failures that have disgusted the political elite. “We have left no task incomplete,” he said in a gauntlet-casting speech on the House floor. “We have patiently waited for the Senate to do something. Anything. And we continue to wait.”

He was spot on when he blasted Gov. Nikki Haley for lumping the House in with the Senate. “Instead of sitting on the sidelines and providing false information to the public through social media, I believe our governor should show true leadership and actively engage with the Senate, rather than blaming the House for the Senate’s ineffectiveness,” he said.

If anything, the speaker was too kind to the governor, because he didn’t add that the primary reason the Senate was never able to reach an agreement on road funding was her absurd demand that any such legislation slash taxes by more than three times as much as it raises them. And still, six months on, I feel compelled every time I write that to note that I haven’t garbled my words: She really did demand that.

Leatherman to blame?

It’s a little more difficult to grade the aim of the finger of one of the tax-slashing senators. Republican Leader Harvey Peeler stunned his colleagues — and thank goodness he kept his mouth shut until after the Senate had voted to not strip the governor of her DOT authority — by calling on Sen. Leatherman to step down, just a year into the job of president pro tempore.

“Being president pro tem and finance chairman is too much; this session is proof of that,” Mr Peeler said, pointing to the Legislature’s failure to enact a budget just two weeks before the next fiscal year starts and the Senate’s failure to pass bills to strengthen the ethics law and fix our roads.

The one thing that is clear is that Sen. Leatherman is not going to step down or, at least under the current circumstances, be pushed out of office. He was elected president pro tempore because he had the support of all of the Democrats and enough Republicans that most of the rest of them fell into line, not wanting to be on the wrong side of the man who controls the money and was about to assume the added role of controlling the Senate agenda — to the degree that anyone controls the Senate agenda.

As for Sen. Peeler’s do-nothing charge, the Senate’s failures this year are indeed appalling. But they are hardly out of the ordinary. How many years has the Senate failed to pass meaningful ethics reforms? And despite some progress now and again, how many times has the House passed important reform measures that died on the Senate calendar? If you answered “more times than anyone can recall,” you get the gold star.

Democrats’ culpability

Much easier to assess is Senate Democrats’ repudiation of any role in the roads debacle. As in Sen. Setzler, who told his Republican colleagues: “Don’t talk to us about roads. We came here in January ready to debate roads. We’re still ready to debate roads.” Or Democratic Sen. Darrell Jackson, who said he was offended “when you paint me with the same brush you paint others who refuse to even bring this up for a vote.”

It is true that Democrats are a distinct minority in the Senate — if you just count political party affiliation. In terms of actual power, they are one of three minorities in a body without a majority — the others being mainstream Republicans and the Crazy Caucus libertarians. Any two factions can join to advance a bill, or an agenda, and none of them has been willing to move off of its position and compromise with the others on roads. Which means they’re all to blame.

It is true too that Democrats voted to give the roads bill priority debate status but lost to Republicans determined to give that space to an anti-abortion bill that an abortion opponent then filibustered because he would rather not prevent any abortions than to prevent only some of those his fellow abortion opponents are targeting.

But that wasn’t the only time the Senate had to decide whether to debate the roads bill. It had to decide that on May 20, when Sen. Martin proposed to stop the filibuster that was preventing work on the budget, which was standing in the way of a roads bill. Just six of the 46 senators voted with him on the motion that would have made it at least theoretically possible to take up the roads bill: Ray Cleary, John Courson, Greg Gregory, Wes Hayes, Greg Hembree and Hugh Leatherman.

Not one of them is member of the Crazy Caucus — or a Democrat.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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