LATE LAST MONTH, Richland County Elections Director Samuel Selph asked County Council members for an extra $1.2 million to get through the current fiscal year.
The next day, the House Ways and Means Committee approved a state budget that shorts Richland and other counties and cities by $113 million. Again.
It was a galling reminder for local officials across the state of their status as the step-children of the Legislative State — in this case, step-children who get handed the bill for the rowdy party their step-parents wouldn’t let them attend.
The Richland County Election Commission is a Richland County agency only in the sense that it is located in Richland County and that the work it is assigned to do is within the confines of Richland County. The assignment comes from the Legislature: to conduct all elections, whether they involve county-level races or not. That’s extra expensive in years when it has to conduct two separate presidential primaries on top of the normal June primaries and November general election.
Worse, the County Council has no control over the commission. Commissioners are appointed by the state legislators who represent the county. The county just pays the bill, regardless of how wastefully or incompetently those legislatively appointed commissioners may be running the office.
State law requires the Legislature to give cities and counties 4.5 percent of the state budget, to help pay for the duties the Legislature requires the election commission and other “local” offices to perform. But the Legislature stopped complying with that law back during the recession, and it never started back.
Now to be sure, this is a tight budget year, recovery notwithstanding; the state does not have a $1.2 billion “surplus,” the declarations of too many legislators to the contrary notwithstanding. It doesn’t even have $1.2 billion more than it had last year; it has about $560 million more, which is barely more than it would take to comply with another state law that requires it to provide the schools another $519 million to pay teacher salaries and other classroom expenses.
Yet somehow Gov. Nikki Haley managed in her budget to comply with the law that guarantees $325 million to local governments. (She did not comply with the education-funding law.)
The $113 million that Ways and Means shorted local governments is about 2 percent of the $7.5 billion general fund budget, which means coming up with the money is neither easy nor impossible. But if representatives need some ideas, here’s one: Use the $130 million they subtracted from the budget to cut income taxes more.
Ways and Means subtracted that money because the governor has demanded tax cuts in return for letting the Legislature raise the gas tax to fix our roads. But it’s hard to imagine that there’s going to be any need to pay that ransom, as the idea of raising the gas tax is moving about as fast as rush-hour traffic through Malfunction Junction. Check that: Most drivers do eventually make it home; the gas tax, not so much.
There is no logical reason to pair tax cuts with a road-repairing gas tax increase, but the governor has a veto pen, so she gets to make unreasonable demands as long as the Legislature can’t override her veto. But without that accompanying gas tax hike, there is simply no way to justify yet another tax cut — in a state that the anti-tax Tax Foundation says has the nation’s 42nd-lowest state and local tax burden.
Of course, there’s no justification for operating 46 separate election commissions, rather than one State Election Commission that directs local offices to register voters and turn on the voting machines.
But as long as the Legislature insists on having 46 separate election commissions, it needs to fund them. Entirely — which doesn’t happen even when it fully funds the local government fund.
As long as the Legislature refuses to fund its election commissions, it needs to let county councils appoint the commissioners and control how their money is spent — like they do with their zoning, public works and other departments.
Mr. Selph, in his plea to the Richland County Council, suggested that he needed his budget doubled in order to avoid a repeat of the debacle of 2012, when the legislators’ previous hand-picked election director ignored warnings and failed to deploy all of the county’s voting machines and failed to make sure the ones she did deploy were actually working, leaving some voters standing in line for two, four, six, eight hours — and causing untold others to give up without voting.
The argument is strained at best. That nightmare was the result of incompetence, not underfunding. The way you fix incompetence is not with more money; it’s with competence.
Maybe we have that now; I don’t know. Unfortunately, neither does the County Council. And it never will know as long as it has no control over that office.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.