Cindi Ross Scoppe

How the SC Senate sold us a fraudulent reform

SC senators huddle during one of their debates of the roads legislation.
SC senators huddle during one of their debates of the roads legislation. AP

IF YOUR BOSS can’t fire you, she’s not your boss. If on top of that, a group of outsiders can secretly prevent her from hiring who she wants to hire, then I’m not sure she’s anybody’s boss.

Such is the non-boss position Gov. Nikki Haley will find herself in if she signs what the Legislature passed last week in the name of “reform” of the parochial commission that runs the state Transportation Department.

Does anyone really believe this is what reformers have been fighting for all session, and the previous session, and some of us for years before that?

Road-repair bill with Malfunction Junction fix heads to governor

This arrangement — which was hatched in the Senate on Tuesday night and on the way to the governor’s desk less than 24 hours later — is probably the worst of all the awful governance plans that were floated over the past two years, as senators attempted to look like they were giving the governor control of the commission without actually giving her control.

Rep. Jonathan Hill — who rarely says anything that makes sense and has become so annoying that he can’t even get nine of his 123 colleagues to join his requests for recorded votes on his motions — summed up the situation correctly Wednesday when he observed that this arrangement puts everybody in charge. Which means nobody’s in charge. Still.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Naive optimism crashes into legislative reality

Currently, the governor appoints one commissioner, and small groups of legislators pick the other seven. S.1258 does allow the governor to appoint all eight commissioners. But those seven small groups of legislators — each group composed of the legislators who live in a given congressional district — will have veto power over her appointments. Worse, they can exercise their veto under cover of darkness: If they don’t vote to approve within 45 days, the bill says, “the appointee is deemed to have been disapproved.” Appointees who are not disapproved still have to get through a joint legislative screening committee and then be confirmed by the Senate.

Sen. Tom Davis, who is urging the governor to veto the bill, warns that this will quickly degenerate into a magistrate-like situation: By law, the governor appoints magistrates. But since the local senators must confirm the appointment, what really happens is that those senators tell the governor who to nominate, she does that, and they confirm that person.

Even as crazy as this Transportation Commission arrangement is, it might still be workable if the governor could remove her appointees. But to do that, she has to get approval from that same small group of legislators who approved the appointment to start with. Which takes us back to that first principle of employment: Your boss isn’t your boss if she can’t fire you.

Why we need real reform, what it would look like

Rep. Gary Simrill, who has worked for two years to get us reform and more funding, told the House on Wednesday that with just one day left in the regular session and powerful senators unlikely to approve any reform after the June 14 primaries, this was the best negotiators could drag out of the Senate. It was this or nothing, he said, and while a lot of House members might have been fine with no reform, they weren’t willing to go home without a road funding plan — even one everybody acknowledged was inadequate.

Senate Republican Leader Shane Massey, one of the leading proponents of real reform, actually sponsored that awful amendment. He defends it as a step forward because the governor “gets to initiate the selection” of commissioners, and it reduces the power of the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank. But like Mr. Simrill, Mr. Massey told me that this was the best arrangement he could get the votes to pass.

It seems extraordinary that we could end up here after the Senate voted, less than three months ago, to let the governor appoint all the commissioners, without all these constraints, and remove them for any cause or no cause.

But many senators — possibly a majority — never wanted reform. They voted for it in March betting that the House would insist on changes to the bill, which would give them a chance to come back and sabotage the reform. It was a good bet, improved by the inclusion of a plan to steal $400 million a year from the state’s general fund to pay for roads.

Sure enough, the House rejected the Senate’s March bill and sent it to a conference committee, from which it never emerged. Short of accepting that unacceptable funding plan, there’s probably nothing the House could have done differently. It was simply outmaneuvered by a master player.

The Senate has always been the place where reforms go to die. Usually senators kill bills by refusing to let them be debated. But some bills are too big to be ignored. In that case, the procedure is to hollow out the bill, leaving the shell intact, and then vote for the hollowed-out remains. That’s what senators did here.

The upshot is that we don’t have significant reform, we don’t have a permanent funding source for roads, and we have a plan that forces the Legislature to steal $200 million a year from general state needs unless or until the Legislature creates a new funding source for roads.

The good news is that House and Senate leaders have made it clear they consider the funding in this bill a temporary fix, until they can raise the gas tax, and House leaders tell me they will use the gas tax as leverage to fix the flaws in the Senate’s governance model. I don’t doubt their commitment, although I do worry about their ability to avoid getting out-maneuvered by the Senate. Again.

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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