Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Most misleading argument against SC DOT reform? ‘We already did it’

rthompson@thestate.com

SUPPORTERS of the status quo love to say that we don’t need to reform the state Transportation Department because we just did that, and it did no good, because the problem isn’t structure but lack of money.

It’s a great comeback, sucking so much of the power out of the call for reform. Just one problem: It’s not true. We didn’t just reform the Transportation Commission. Not really. Not if by “reform” you mean anything along the lines of “transformed it into an agency we’d trust with more of our tax dollars.”

Reforming the Transportation Department means replacing the horse-trading, parochial, legislatively appointed governing board with a governance mechanism that has a statewide perspective — and that can be held accountable for its decisions.

The 2007 Legislature did give the governor the power to appoint the agency’s day-to-day manager — while keeping its own horse-trading, parochial commission in place. Lawmakers even allowed the governor to call that manager a “secretary,” so it sounds like this is a Cabinet agency. It’s not.

As our editorial board noted at the time: “It’s possible that the secretary will even get to run the agency. We certainly hope so. But the Legislature’s commission will have the power to cut his legs from under him. And the most important decisions — about which roads get built, which ones get widened, which bridges get replaced — will not be made by the ‘secretary,’ or even by the Legislature.

“The most important decisions will be made by the unelected, unaccountable commission, which is designed to protect local interests rather than concentrate our limited resources on the most crucial needs of the state. A board that still includes several of the members who thought the last director was doing such a fine job that they gave her a vote of confidence even after auditors reviewed just a third of the agency’s spending and documented tens of millions of dollars squandered on questionable contracts, high-level nepotism and cronyism and manipulation of the books in order to deceive the Legislature.”

Don’t just take my word for it. I, after all, am not an impartial observer; I believe in allowing governors rather than unaccountable legislative appointees to run the executive branch of government. Instead, consider what outside experts, people who have nothing to gain or lose by what happens in South Carolina, had to say about the 2007 reform.

In its 2008 “Grading the States” report, the Pew Center on the States described the new law thusly: “All sides wanted reform — an audit of the department had revealed poor contract and financial management. But no decision was ever made. In fact, the result of the session was a hapless arrangement that created a new position, appointed by the governor, to reform the department, but left the legislatively appointed commission to select projects. The combination, as one DOT employee puts it, hangs a sword of Damocles over the department. Much-needed maintenance money for dilapidated highways will have to wait until some future date when the state stops treating the DOT like a political football.”

A cynic might say the whole 2007 law was a sham, designed to deceive us into believing the Legislature had reformed an agency and a commission that legislative auditors had found to be completely out of control. The only reason I don’t fully embrace this viewpoint is that Rep. Jay Lucas, now the House speaker, was negotiating as hard as he could for real reform. Unfortunately, he was outgunned by anti-reform senators and House leaders who wanted to look like they favored reform but never did.

The biggest and most obvious problem with that law was the constraints it placed on the secretary, who couldn’t even sell off surplus property without permission from the Legislature’s commission. Or dedicate highway facilities, advertise for or award consulting contracts, enter into contracts worth more than $500,000 or approve most “resurfacing, installation of new signals, curb cuts on primary roads, bike lanes, or construction projects.”

Other anti-reform provisions were less obvious but just as constraining.

For example, the law lets the governor remove commissioners for breaking the law or refusing to come to meetings, which amazingly is more than the old law allowed, but the commissioners still can’t be removed for doing a lousy job — not even by the legislators who appoint them. In other words, they remain completely unaccountable for their ridiculous decisions, like, say, reviving their dream of building a brand-new interstate to nowhere in the PeeDee, while our existing interstates disintegrate.

And although the law allows governors to hire and fire the secretary, it stripped them of the ability to appoint the chairman of the commission, which now selects its own chairman. The governor still gets to appoint one commissioner, but it can’t be anyone who lives in the same county as a commissioner selected by legislators.

Defenders of the status quo are right about one thing: If this is what what you call reform, then reform won’t accomplish anything. As we have seen these past eight years.

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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