AUDITORS reviewing the state Transportation Department were understandably concerned about the law that divided control of the agency between a secretary hired by the governor and a legislatively appointed commission with the authority to sabotage the secretary. That sort of two-boss arrangement is a disaster waiting to happen in any organization, public or private.
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So the Legislative Audit Council gave legislators five alternative solutions:
▪ Abolish the commission and let the governor appoint the agency director.
▪ Let the governor appoint the director and the commission.
▪ Let the governor appoint the commission, which appoints the director.
▪ Let the governor appoint the director and commission, and limit the commission’s role to oversight rather than policy making.
▪ Let the governor appoint the commission, which would appoint the director and have its role limited to oversight.
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In case you got lost in the list, the common theme is no appointment authority for legislators.
That might seem surprising coming from an auditing agency that is part of the legislative branch of government, but it’s easy to understand when you see the eye-opening table in the audit listing “governance models nationwide.”
While there’s no uniformity for having commissions or not and for who hires and fires the director, there are only two states in which legislators make more than an occasional commission appointment: South Carolina, where they appoint seven of the eight commissioners, and Georgia, which shuts the governor completely out of the process.
The audit notes that “Of the 256 members of transportation boards or commissions across the country, only 23 (including 7 in South Carolina) are appointed or elected by legislative bodies, groups of legislators, or individual legislators.” All but two of the other 16 legislative appointees are in Georgia.
If you’re wondering why I’m writing about this now that the House and Senate both have voted to let the governor appoint the commission, it is because getting that change to the governor’s desk is no sure thing.
There are differences in the two bodies’ bills that have nothing to do with who appoints commissioners, and those differences could result in the Legislature adjourning again this year without doing a thing to fix the problems at the agency that is not spending our road dollars in the most efficient way.
Read the audit
Not only are there supporters who don’t actually support the change, but critics are working overtime to convince the public there is no true reform without abolishing the Transportation Commission.
As someone who has been fighting for a quarter century to convince the Legislature to give our governors the same sort of executive power that is held by their counterparts the nation over, let me say this very clearly: That is poppycock, trafficked by people who either don’t have a clue what they’re talking about or don’t want to be deprived of a campaign issue by getting the solution they claim to want.
What we want, what we need, is for our limited road dollars to be spent on the projects that are most needed in our state. What we have is a commission that is designed to focus on parochial needs rather than statewide needs, with commissioners horse-trading their pet projects until they get enough votes.
What we need is an agency that is accountable to someone we all elect — the governor. What we have is an agency that isn’t accountable to anyone, because commissioners are appointed by small groups of legislators who don’t even have the power to remove them when they make lousy decisions.
Letting the governor hire and fire commissioners should solve both problems. But if it doesn’t solve the first problem, then the voters can deal with the governor. (We also need a Legislature that isn’t consumed with meddling in the operations of state agencies, but instead concentrates on its actual job: writing laws.)
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Yes, we have too many part-time boards in charge of state agencies. But the problem is not having a board; it’s having too many boards. When a governor has to control 60 agencies through the two-step process of hiring and firing the right board members, who in turn hire and fire the right directors, she’s simply not going to be able to keep up; the less important agencies won’t get the attention they need. But a Transportation Department will never suffer that fate.
As the LAC report makes clear, it’s not the presence or absence of a transportation commission that makes any state stick out: 28 states have commissions; 26 of them are appointed by the governor.
Would it be better to eliminate the Transportation Commission? Certainly. But simply giving the governor the power to hire and fire the commissioners gets us 90 percent of what we need. Maybe 95 percent.
Having to appoint a board does not dilute the governor’s authority one bit; it just means she has to do a little more work. And I have a feeling that’s extra work this governor, or any governor, would be more than happy to do.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.