Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: SC House oversight panel’s work too important for Planned Parenthood, or any other, distraction

ASSOCIATED PRESS

I SUSPECT Paul Townes would be looking for work now if not for a quirk of timing that brought the internal auditor before the House’s Legislative Oversight Committee just as the Transportation Commission was getting fed up with his interest in looking for waste, fraud and abuse.

If not for Mr. Townes’ very public complaints at a very public meeting of the new legislative committee, we likely never would have known that the commissioners were at loggerheads with the internal auditor over whether he should act as a watchdog or a lapdog.

Watchdog muzzled? DOT auditor told not to look for waste, fraud, abuse

Saving individual auditors from getting axed is not technically the task of the committee. Its job is much bigger than that: to find problems in state agencies. It was serendipity that brought Mr. Townes before the panel at precisely the moment that the transportation commissioners were preparing to show him the door, almost certainly in violation of state law.

Saving this auditor was merely a startling side effect of the Legislature’s new focus on actually paying attention to what’s going on in the state agencies that it traditionally has created, funded and then ignored until a crisis erupted.

Perhaps this will be the only such dramatic benefit of the new process, but I rather doubt it.

That is, I rather doubt it as long as the committee stays focused on its work.

Which it voted last week not to do.

Last week, the committee voted to distract itself from the intensive reviews it has pledged to complete this year of the huge Transportation Department and nine other state agencies, adding an investigation into the relationship between Planned Parenthood and four state agencies.

House panel to investigate relationship between SC agencies, abortion clinics

Now, there are circumstances under which it might be a good use of the panel’s time (or at least not a bad use) to jump into the political firestorm that has been raging nationally since the release of secretly recorded videos showing Planned Parenthood officials talking cavalierly about harvesting and selling aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers.

It certainly would make sense, for instance, to add that line of questioning if the panel already were reviewing the agencies it plans to call in for questioning: the Medical University of South Carolina and the departments of Health and Environmental Control, Health and Human Services and Social Services. But it’s not.

It might even be a worthwhile question for the panel to pursue if no one else was examining whether any fetal tissue was being harvested in South Carolina, and whether any state funds were supporting that. And if there were anything to suggest that what we know has happened in California and Oregon might be happening here. And if the committee weren’t already overloaded.

But none of that is the case.

The attorney general is investigating Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood clinics. Gov. Nikki Haley has asked DHEC to investigate those clinics. And I think it’s safe to say that her Cabinet directors at DSS and Health and Human Services would let her know if there were any hint of problems in their agencies, and that Mr. Wilson will expand his investigation if he gets any remotely credible suggestions that there’s anything amiss.

Separately, more than 35 legislators have asked the Legislative Audit Council to pin down how much tax money goes to Planned Parenthood. Frankly, that’s a task that’s beneath the LAC’s expertise, and could easily be performed by the House and Senate budget committees. If budget writers don’t already have that information, it’s only because they’ve had no interest in having it, not because it would be difficult to get.

Even more important than the lack of a need for this foray is that question of capacity. And focus.

The House committee was created to comply with a 2014 law that also turned control of most central administrative functions of government over to the governor; the twin components of that law were designed to give the governor the tools and authority to act like a governor and to give the Legislature the tools and mandate to act like a legislature. The Legislature gave itself the new oversight mandate in hopes of pulling our state out of its crisis-to-crisis pattern by helping lawmakers spot potential problems before they become crises, by conducting regular audits of state agencies, on a seven-year rotating basis.

The Oversight Committee’s mission. Plus, How the committee describes its mission

Rather than creating a single new committee to become an expert at examining agencies, the Senate tasked its standing committees with investigating the agencies already assigned to them, with the assistance of a central staff of investigators.

This was the approach envisioned by the authors of the law, who also wanted to get more legislators familiar with what happens in state agencies. That should help them understand how laws need to be changed to accomplish our goals.

House Speaker Jay Lucas convinced me, and his colleagues in the House, that his approach was worth trying, in spite of its shortcomings and drawbacks. But I still had my doubts as to whether the panel was up to its extremely important and challenging and time-consuming task.

SC House, Senate take vastly different approaches to their huge new mission

My doubts grew when the panel’s wisely modest first-year list of four agencies to review morphed into a list of 10.

And now this.

Let’s be nice and assume that the House members who voted to divert their attention from their actual mission weren’t just looking for an opportunity to score political points by taking on what is rapidly becoming one of the least popular entities in the country, at least among Republican primary voters.

Let’s just stick with what we know: Their investigation is duplicative. Their investigation will distract them from their mission. Our state desperately needs them to succeed in their mission.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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