Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Putting governor in charge is risky, but safer than the alternative

SC Gov Nikki Haley joins her new best pal Sen. Marco Rubio at an Atlanta campaign event last month.
SC Gov Nikki Haley joins her new best pal Sen. Marco Rubio at an Atlanta campaign event last month. AP

SEN. JOEL Lourie and I have been having a running conversation about my insistence on turning control of the Transportation Department over to the governor.

He reminds me that this governor — like her predecessor — has overseen disasters at the agencies she already controls and the dismemberment of our environmental protections at an agency she only tangentially controls. I say voters will never make better choices until they have to live with the consequences of those choices.

He says that might be fine if we lived in a purple state, but since the Republican is always going to be elected, there’s no accountability. I quote Lindsay Graham, who until recently said of the president’s Supreme Court nominees, “Elections have consequences.”

One night last week, Joel sent me an email linking to news about the disaster engulfing the Department of Juvenile Justice and asking, simply: “And we want another cabinet agency??”

It’s a tough time to believe in checks and balances and letting the state’s chief executive execute the laws. Again.

We’ve been here before. We’ve lived through dead babies that the Department of Social Services didn’t have time to check back in on and a state full of stolen tax records at the Revenue Department and the TB debacle at DHEC, which isn’t a Cabinet agency but whose director at the time acted as though it were. We watched Gov. Nikki Haley burn through two directors of the Department of Employment and Workforce and two at the Transportation Department, where she can hire and fire the director, but the Legislature’s commission can derail that director’s efforts.

Each time, opponents of executive authority said, essentially, “I told you so.” This, they said, is why the governor shouldn’t be able to hire and fire agency directors, or at least not any more agency directors.

It’s a compelling argument. Until you flip it around. Until you ask, “What’s the alternative?”

For much of South Carolina’s history, the official alternative has been for the Legislature to be in charge of state agencies. But since at least the 1970s, when government became too big and complex for a handful of all-powerful legislative leaders to personally oversee, the real alternative has been for no one to be in charge. Or no one who is even indirectly accountable to the voters.

The alternative has been for legislators to appoint people they can’t then unappoint (as is still the case at the Transportation Department), and for those part-time commissioners to hire and fire the agency directors. In some cases, the governor appointed the boards, but also without the authority to remove them when they drove the agency into a ditch.

Sometimes the directors did a great job. Sometimes they did a lousy job.

There were dead babies at DSS back when the Legislature’s commission ran the place. The Department of Workforce and Employment was created from the ashes of the Employment Security Commission, which imploded under the direction of the Legislature’s commissioners. We had abuses when Juvenile Justice was run by commission instead of a Cabinet secretary.

Anyone who thought turning control of those agencies over to the governor would make all the problems go away wasn’t paying attention. The form of government doesn’t create or eliminate problems. The form of government makes it easier or more difficult to correct problems. The form of government makes it easier or more difficult for the voters to hold elected officials accountable when problems aren’t corrected.

I don’t expect government to operate perfectly, any more than I expect perfection from Time Warner or my credit card company or the business that mows my lawn.

What I expect is for my government to avoid doing things that any reasonable person should know will cause problems, and to act quickly to correct problems when they occur.

It is deeply disturbing to learn that gangs have started three riots in eight months at the Department of Juvenile Justice’s main facility and left other juveniles and staff in fear for their lives.

It is more disturbing because of the similarity to the problem at DSS: The agency has allowed vulnerable children for whose well-being the state has assumed responsibility to be put at grave risk.

It is more disturbing because of the similarity to the problem at the Revenue Department: A vital position related to the breach was left vacant. At Revenue, hackers had their way with our poorly secured tax information during a year when the job of computer-security director remained vacant. At Juvenile Justice, gangs seized a foothold in a year with no gang-intervention specialist or rapid-response team and three years — three years — with no police chief. At a prison.

We still know much less than we don’t know about the situation at the Department of Juvenile Justice. But it seems clear that either the governor is not paying close enough attention to an agency with the constant potential for convulsive problems or else she’s being misled by her director.

Our saving grace is that we have given the governor the power to correct either problem. She has to do that. Now.

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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