South Carolina state senators responded in a commendable and convincing manner to the undeniable need to continue the restructuring efforts that began more than two decades ago in our state government. If the House agrees to the Senate bill and gets it to Gov. Nikki Haley before this legislative session ends, South Carolina state government will have been pushed into the 21st century.
The House already has passed a restructuring bill, and now differences in these two pieces of legislation must be worked out. The Senate has been woefully slow to act on restructuring and has been fairly criticized for dragging its feet. The bill passed late last week is serious and needed reform. Gov. Haley deserves credit for making this a centerpiece of her agenda, and so do several state senators including Vincent Sheheen, Shane Massey and Tom Davis.
South Carolina’s structure for state government was formed in the post-Reconstruction days of the late 1800s. This state had historically resisted giving adequate power to a strong chief executive, and that resistance deepened after Reconstruction.
Our state has suffered because of an antiquated structure of government that splintered authority among powerful legislators able to quietly influence major state agencies at a distance, stole executive powers that rightly belonged to a governor who is elected statewide and is at least theoretically responsible to all voters, and diminished any hope for bringing greater efficiency and serious accountability in a state desperately in need of both.
Restructuring started more than two decades ago under then-Gov. Carroll Campbell who was able to seize some executive power from a state dominated by the legislative branch. Campbell was able to create a Cabinet and bring some state agencies under the scope of the Governor’s Office.
This was a start, but only a start. Other attempts at restructuring have died painful deaths.
What the Senate did last week will go a long way toward completing this work.
The controversial Budget and Control Board will be eliminated if this bill becomes law. This is a creature unique to South Carolina. It makes the governor one of only five people in charge of much of the executive functions of state government. And it allows the Legislature to influence the administrative functions of government by controlling two of the five votes on this board. The other two belong to the state treasurer and comptroller general.
While the criticism has long been that the Budget and Control Board weakened the authority of the Governor’s Office, which it does, this board also allows legislators to escape some of the tough decisions that belong to the legislative branch. The Senate bill does a commendable job of correcting both problems.
For starters, governors in South Carolina would be in charge of a new Cabinet-level Department of Administration that would oversee administrative functions such as state vehicles, buildings, computer systems and some purchasing, according to a story in The State newspaper. The governor would have much of the executive power that belongs in the executive branch of government, and with this power would come greater accountability to taxpayers.
At the same time, the Budget and Control Board would no longer be around to give cover to legislators whenever state agencies want to run deficits or when there is a significant revenue shortfall when the Legislature is not in session. In these cases, the Legislature would have to approve requests when agencies think they need to run a deficit, and legislators would have to return to Columbia and make targeted cuts when state revenues are more than 2 percent under projections.
A great change, too, would be the requirement that the legislative branch hold hearings at least every four years so state agencies will have to prove they are meeting expectations. This would go a long way toward ending the days that state agencies could skate by forever without a serious review of their mission and their programs.
Even this restructuring bill leaves a lot of work undone. Many vital functions of state government are controlled by virtually anonymous commissions that in some cases still answer to powerful legislators and evade accountability to taxpayers. Exhibit A is the state Department of Transportation that continues to waste money on politically driven decisions and deflects efforts by reform-minded DOT commissioners.
It’s tempting to urge the House to improve on the reforms in the Senate package and close some gaps in the Senate bill. A harsh reality is that opening the restructuring effort up to more debate could stall this reform effort again and leave South Carolina stuck in the 19th century when it comes to our system of government.
The Senate bill moves our state in the right direction. It brings greater accountability to state government and gives the governor more executive power and the Legislature more legislative oversight. There’s room to tinker around the edges of this bill, but it’s more important to turn this bill into law this year.