WE ARE IN an unfamiliar place in S.C. politics and government, a Kumbaya moment when our legislators have agreed in overwhelming numbers to do something that was unimaginable three weeks ago. If they manage to have the right debate, in the right way, to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds and move forward in a healing way, then we will remain in an unfamiliar place, and our legislators and governor will be worthy of high praise. And all the good that they have done will cloud our judgment about all that they did — and did not do — before a brutal massacre in a Charleston church altered our priorities.
So before that happens, we need to take a moment to look back on what our Legislature did in the session that would be over by now had it not been for the slaughter.
We all know that the Legislature failed to fix two of the three big problems that legislators, lobbyists and much of the public considered this year’s priorities. But our editorial board laid out a much more ambitious agenda for the session — one that went beyond those tasks that politicians put on their to-do list to include our state’s overarching problems. That gave lawmakers a lot more opportunities to succeed. Or to fail. Which they did. Consistently.
We included the two matters that everyone’s so angry with lawmakers for failing to address: a crumbling highway system that needs between $400 million and $1.5 billion more a year to bring it up to standard, and an ethics law that makes too many unethical actions legal, hides too much information from the public about officials’ conflicts of interest and allows legislators to police their own compliance with the law.
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We did not include domestic violence. I’m delighted with the Legislature’s response, but that was for us a second-tier issue. So instead of the 1-2 that most people give the Legislature for the session’s big items, our legislative score at this point is 0-2.
It only gets worse from here.
Schools & courts
The issue at the top of our to-do list was responding to the Supreme Court order to repair a school system that has been depriving children in poor districts of a decent education for decades, if not forever.
Most people ignored this because the House and Senate both announced they would study it for a year, and the House has put together a very impressive panel that holds great promise. But the fact remains that we’ve known about this problem for decades. Although I respect the idea of thinking through a smart solution, there were immediate steps the Legislature could have taken — most obviously consolidating school districts — that would have demonstrated good faith while the study panels tackled thornier matters.
Perhaps our state’s most under-appreciated problem is a judicial selection system that allows legislators to keep judges on a short leash. The problem was brought into sharp focus by then-Speaker Bobby Harrell’s odyssey through our court system, as he tried to prevent the attorney general from investigating him on the corruption charges to which he eventually pleaded guilty. There is no proof that any judge did anything inappropriate, but there’s enough smoke to give the whole state an asthma attack.
The Legislature spent this whole year ignoring this problem — unless you believe it moved a tiny step in the opposite direction when it replaced a respected judge with the husband of a sitting House member.
The Legislature did pass some important legislation this year — making the punishment for domestic violence tougher and smarter, requiring police to wear body cameras, freeing the State Grand Jury and attorney general from ill-conceived judicial constraints, requiring public bodies to post agendas in advance of all meetings and replacing the governing board of S.C. State University.
But those solutions pale compared to the unaddressed systemic problems that have held our state back for years: a tax system that is more loophole than whole, a spending system designed to maintain the status quo rather than address our state’s needs, a convoluted executive branch that is hamstrung by an over-controlling Legislature, and cities and counties that are called on to do more and more of the state’s work but given too little money to do it and barred by that all-controlling Legislature from raising the money themselves.
Legislators never even considered thinking about maybe trying to reform the tax code, or empower governors, or free local governments from their legislative shackles. Instead, they created still more tax loopholes; the House passed a bill to lock in the underfunding of local governments, without letting up a bit on its control.
If you’re keeping score at home, that takes the Legislature to 0-8. A complete and utter failure by any standard.
No bargaining chips
Why did things go so badly even on those problems legislators vowed to solve?
To answer that, you need to understand a peculiarity about the political mindset in our state. In most states and in the federal government, the “three branches of government,” the co-equal and independent branches that are supposed to check and balance each others’ powers, are the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches.
That’s technically the case here too, but legislators don’t see it that way. To them, the three branches are the House, the Senate and the governor. The judiciary serves as a ward of the House and Senate — which, you might recall, is one of the problems that needs to be fixed but hasn’t been.
Usually, the House can influence what happens in the Senate (and vice versa) by horse-trading what the Senate wants for what it wants. The problem this year is that there never was much you could say the Senate wanted.
Sen. Hugh Leatherman, who is in his first year of serving double duty as president pro tempore and Finance Committee chairman, wanted to create a permanent funding source for roads, but he couldn’t get that bill up for a vote, so the House couldn’t trade more money for more reform. When reformers refused to let the Senate pass a watered-down ethics bill, that took away the House’s ability to negotiate a better deal.
I sympathize with the House, which sees itself as having done its job by passing the roads and ethics bills that the Senate refused to pass, only to get lumped in with the Senate as a failure.
Under the new leadership of Speaker Jay Lucas, the lower chamber has reclaimed its role as the body of positive change, even as the Senate reasserted itself as the place where good bills go to die.
But the founding fathers made a deliberate decision to create a government in which neither the House nor the Senate could accomplish anything on its own.
The House can pass the best bills in the world, and it does the people of South Carolina absolutely no good as long as the Senate doesn’t pass them. Which, on issue after issue after issue, it didn’t do this year.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.
One session, three grades, all bad
▪ The conventional way to grade a legislative session is to look at what needed to be done and what got done. By that assessment, lawmakers get an “F.”
▪ An oft-used alternative is to judge the work of a two-year session; since this was just the first year, lawmakers get a more respectable “Incomplete.”
▪ If we grade the House and Senate separately, the House gets a “C,” the Senate an “F.”
Representatives passed a solid ethics bill and a solid roads bill, but they failed to act on education, judicial reform, tax reform, spending reform or governance reform. Even if I give them credit for a good-faith effort with their education study panel, they still deserve no better than a “C+.”