Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: How Hugh Leatherman’s hometown highway stymies statewide road improvement

Nancy Cave and Dana Beach lay in the middle of SC 51 and time how long it takes a car to disturb them. The rural Florence County road will be turned into a five-lane highway with the state contributing $340 million.
Nancy Cave and Dana Beach lay in the middle of SC 51 and time how long it takes a car to disturb them. The rural Florence County road will be turned into a five-lane highway with the state contributing $340 million. Mwalsh@thestate.com

ONE OF THE best ways for powerful legislators to stop being powerful legislators is to get so caught up in doing the business of the state that they forget the folks back home. I know, I know: Focusing on the business of the state is a legislator’s job, but try telling that to most voters.

In any event, Senate President Pro Tempore and Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman is not about to get caught in that trap. The other day, the Florence businessman called a news conference to defend his home county against “the blatant mockery” of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.

It’s actually Mr. Leatherman that the league is mocking, and it’s been doing so for months, hawking pictures of Executive Director Dana Beach lying down during rush hour in the middle of a two-lane country road in Florence County. Mr. Leatherman convinced the state Infrastructure Bank to spend more than $100 million to widen that road to five lanes. Last month, Mr. Beach managed to move his complaint off the opinion pages and onto the front page of The State, which featured a new version of his famous photo and an extensive article on his complaint.

Which is: The Infrastructure Bank puts politics ahead of state needs. Mr. Leatherman’s hometown road is just the latest poster child. Up until last year, the complaint centered on Charleston County, where nearly a decade of Bobby Harrell, Glenn McConnell and Mark Sanford produced the sort of infrastructure funding spree that recalls the old charge that the Holy City was in danger of sinking into the sea if then-U.S. Rep. Mendel Rivers hauled any more military pork to town. It was the Infrastructure Bank’s dogged determination to spend $600 million to extend Interstate 526 through pristine coast land that turned Mr. Beach from environmental crusader to anti-road-building crusader.

You’d never know that from listening to Mr. Leatherman, who implied that the photo was a fake and spun Mr. Beach’s criticism as parochial politics.

“Activists from the Coastal Conservation League in Charleston are trying to commit highway robbery on Florence County and I will not permit it,” The Florence Morning News quoted the senator as saying. “Before I became chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, all monies went to Greenville, Columbia and Charleston. No more. We are going to get our fair share and no longer be ignored.”

His point about other areas isn’t far off. At the time, then-House Speaker Harrell and then-Senate President Pro Tempore McConnell appointed the majority of the bank’s board members, and Charleston County was the recipient, along with just one other county, of a full 56 percent of the bank’s funding over its first 15 years. (That’s according to figures compiled by … Mr. Beach.) But now the two legislators who appoint four of the seven members of the board — Mr. Leatherman and House Speaker Jay Lucas — are from Florence and adjacent Darlington counties. So it’s payoff time in the Pee Dee.

Beyond brazenly boasting of his pork-barrel prowess, Mr. Leatherman spun the state spending as an entirely local matter, charging that “rabble rousers” have “made it their business to tell the people of Florence what’s good for them” by trying to stop projects that were “voted for by our citizens in a referendum for a penny increase on our sales tax.”

It’s true that Florence County taxpayers are kicking in $148 million for the Pamplico Highway and five other road projects. Meantime, taxpayers statewide are providing $340 million via the Infrastructure Bank.

And that’s the problem. If you’ve got a powerful legislator backing you, and a local match, you’re going to get money for road projects that might or might not be necessary, and that almost certainly do not address the state’s most urgent road needs. Indeed, the Infrastructure Bank makes the Transportation Commission look like a paragon of responsible stewardship.

The bank gets to ignore the very smart objective criteria that the Transportation Commission is theoretically required to follow in setting its priorities. Add that to the fact it was created to build rather than maintain, and you understand why it’s the target for Mr. Beach and a lot of legislators who make the very reasonable demand that the state adopt a fix-it-first policy and require all road work to involve actual priorities and that the governor, not small groups of legislators, control the Transportation Department.

But Mr. Leatherman, Democratic senators and a few other Republicans are adamantly opposed to those reforms. How opposed? They have been the most adamant about the need to raise taxes to dramatically increase spending on roads. Yet when the House defied extraordinary political odds and expectations and voted overwhelmingly this year to send them a bill to do just that, they let it die rather than even consider the extremely modest reforms it contained.

It’s a bizarre position for most of those senators to take, but I suppose it makes sense if you’re one of the two legislators who control the bank, and if you’ve got $340 million coming into your home county to help make sure you get to keep controlling it.

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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