Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: A changed South Carolina has new needs and expectations for Legislature

South Carolinans were changed by a series of traumatic events last year, starting with the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. We need our Legislature to reflect that change.
South Carolinans were changed by a series of traumatic events last year, starting with the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. We need our Legislature to reflect that change. AP

THE 2016 GENERAL Assembly opens today in a South Carolina that is markedly different than a year ago — even than six months ago, when the 2015 regular session ended.

We have had our hearts ripped out by an evil man-child of our own making — and our faith in humanity, and in God, restored by the amazing grace of his victims.

We have sustained natural disasters of heretofore unimaginable magnitude to us — and been awed once again by the resilience and generosity of our neighbors, and our communities.

We have come in painful confrontation with the danger of government on the cheap — and it is not clear we recognize that the lessons of that confrontation extend far beyond the regulation of dams.

We have been forced to continue witnessing video images of heavy-handed and even illegal police tactics, which exposed the danger of government secrecy and in some cases an ugly underbelly of racial animosity that we had briefly deluded ourselves into believing we had moved beyond.

As a result, our state has new needs and expectations of our Legislature.

We expect our legislators to spend money wisely to repair the damage done to our state by the worst flooding we could imagine. We expect them to understand that individuals who are injured by a job loss or injury or illness are no less injured and no more to blame than those who suffer from uninsured losses in natural disasters — and to bring that understanding to the debate over aid for flood victims as well as the debate over Medicaid and other social-safety-net programs.

We expect our legislators to recognize the role that a lackadaisical dam-safety program played in the October floods, and to repair that program. More importantly, we need them to determine what other public-safety programs are inadequate to protect the safety of the public — and make those programs work.

We expect our legislators to recognize that public trust is essential to law enforcement and that police video can bolster that trust — but only if it is made public; we need them to recognize that it is in the interest of everyone — especially the police — to get rid of police officers who are unsuited for such a vitally important job.

Most of all, we need our legislators to bring the same grace to their routine work that they brought to their special work in July, when they removed a symbol that causes pain to so very many South Carolinians.

Although important, what the Legislature did in removing the Confederate flag from the State House lawn was much less important than how it was done. If most legislators had felt backed into a corner and resentful about being forced to do something they opposed, our state could have ended up worse off than with no action. But while a vocal minority of legislators and citizens felt that way, most did not. Do not.

Most white South Carolinians were so touched by the way the relatives of the Emanuel nine forgave the twisted killer who slaughtered their loved ones, and so horrified when they realized that he had wrapped himself in the same flag that flew at the seat of our government, that they finally understood how much that flag hurt their neighbors … their fellow Christians … and they finally wanted to stop causing that pain.

It was that understanding and that grace that changed the hearts of South Carolinians — including legislators.

It is that understanding and grace that needs to infuse our legislators’ work on … everything. We need them to reach across racial divides and talk and listen to each other the way they did for those few brief days after the Emanuel tragedy — and to keep doing that until it becomes routine.

We need this spirit of understanding to be embraced across races and parties, and beyond our Legislature, though our legislators ought to set an example for all of us. All of us need to become people who are willing to apologize when we are wrong — and forgive when we are wronged. We need to become people who recognize that we sometimes do harm even when we mean no harm — and that others sometimes mean no injury even when they injure us.

We also need and expect our legislators to recognize that while the traumatic and dramatic events and reactions of the past six months have made us wiser and more compassionate, presented us with tests we have passed and failed, and with new priorities and challenges, they have not taken away the problems and challenges that we faced before.

We need and expect our legislators to do those things that they needed to do last year, and the year before that, and the year before that: Provide every child in South Carolina with the opportunity to get a decent education. Overhaul our ethics law. Overhaul our judicial selection process. Empower our governor to act as a counter-balance to the all-powerful Legislature. Emancipate our cities and counties from legislative constraints. Reform our budgeting process. Reform our tax code.

If they are willing to build on grace and understanding, to work in a spirit of good faith across racial and partisan divides, then this routine work of government, while perhaps complicated, should be well within their grasp.

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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