June 20, 2024

The Nerve Archive

Where Government Gets Exposed

What’s Wrong with South Carolina?

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Let me admit up front that I don’t always agree with this website’s parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council. I’m not convinced the Common Core is a big problem. I think South Carolina should have taken the federal funding for Obamacare. I’m guessing that I have a more charitable opinion of Environmental Protection Agency than my friends on Pendleton Street.

In spite of that, I’m willing to say that the Policy Council is one of the most important forces for good in South Carolina. The simple reason is that none of our opinions about the education, health care, conservation or economic development matter as long as our government is riddled with corruption.

Almost every state lays claim to a rotten legislature, but South Carolina is unsurpassed in the iron grip a few politicians have on everything from road building to hospital beds. In an article titled “The Problem of South Carolina,” historian James Banner described our state’s “culture of conformity suppressing political debate.”

Illustrating the stranglehold on political discourse, between 1902 and 1962 Democrats occupied every seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives, every seat in the state Senate, and the governor’s office. By 2000, the balance had flipped to Republicans, who now have an unshakeable majority in both houses as well as control of the governor’s office. There’s not a lot of creative, independent decision-making going on in Columbia, to put it mildly.

In this atmosphere, challenging the power structure in South Carolina can be the equivalent of political suicide. Anyone who has spent much time in Columbia can tell you how afraid representatives and senators are of breaking out of the pack. The fear of retaliation is palpable, and completely justified. Retaliation is the tool by which conformity is enforced.

Perhaps more than any other organization in the state, the Policy Council has taken on the power structure. Their work on roll call voting, as innocuous as it sounds (who could oppose revealing how you voted on a particular bill?), was the beginning of a revolution, and it was bitterly opposed by the power brokers.

The Policy Council’s work on ethics reform took the cause of transparency and accountability a step further. (I should also note the leadership of the League of Women Voters.)  With sustained effort in the upcoming session, the Legislature may pass an anti-corruption (a.k.a. “ethics reform”) bill that actually protects citizens from insider dealings shrouded in secrecy.

The problem is that these issues are not particularly compelling to the average voter. Roll-call voting is a yawner, unless you know you’ve been the victim of secret voting. One representative said he had gotten more phone calls on the turkey hunting season than on ethics reform. But the Policy Council has soldiered on, in spite of the lack of understanding, the apathy and the resignation.

The truth is that the processes of government are vitally important to every South Carolinian. They are where the rubber hits the road – and in the case of transportation, where the actual rubber hits the actual road, or the pothole, as the case may be.

South Carolina’s transportation funding agenda is a farce. We can’t afford to repair the almost 2,000 bridges that are weight-limited or obsolete. We can’t afford routine maintenance on interstates and primary roads, much less rural back roads. We can’t afford to add capacity to our most heavily travelled transportation corridors. Forget bike paths and light rail.

Conventional wisdom says that the reason for these deficiencies is that our gas tax is too low. But conventional wisdom doesn’t understand the way transportation decisions are made in South Carolina.  Here’s a thumbnail sketch. We have not one, but two, transportation commissions. The one most people are familiar with is called the S.C. Department of Transportation. But the one with the real money – billions of dollars – is called the S.C. State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (the STIB). The transportation commissioners on the DOT are appointed by the legislators in each Congressional district, plus one by the Governor. This is not ideal.  But the STIB makes the DOT process look like a model of good government.

In a stunning display of the insidious concentration of power plaguing the state, the majority of the STIB board is appointed by two people – one, a senator (the President Pro Tem, Hugh Leatherman, from Florence); the other a member of the House (the Speaker – formerly Bobby Harrell). Collectively, they represent less than 3 percent of the voters in the state, but they control the entire new construction transportation budget and all of the new repair and maintenance funding.

Last month, the DOT released a report asserting that the state faces a $42 billion shortfall in transportation funding over the coming 45 years.  That comes to almost $24,000 per South Carolina household. Which is to say, the number is a joke.

Underneath the number are billions of dollars of funding for the pet projects of political insiders, projects that are unnecessary, unimportant or outright harmful. The poster children are I-73 between Rockingham, N.C. and Conway, at $2.4 billion, and the extension of I-526 to Johns Island, at more than half a billion dollars. Removing those two boondoggles would reduce the “backlog” by $3 billion.

What is not included in the DOT report is any assignments of priority among the various needs. The report does not opine on which projects would be done first if the Department received additional funding, or which would not be done at all if they failed to secure the entire $42 billion. Which is to say, the report proposes a $42 billion slush fund that would be spent at the discretion of the power brokers. That, in simple terms, is why we should not raise the gas tax. As a friend of mine on John’s Island says, “No taxation without prioritization.”

All of which brings me back to the Policy Council. The transportation agenda is only one example of the fact that most of South Carolina’s millennial challenges – meeting our present and future needs in education, economic development, resource conservation and health – are made almost intractably difficult by the clique of power that dominates public decision-making. The Policy Council has made impressive progress against seemingly overwhelming opposition. As a conservationist and a South Carolinian, I’m deeply grateful to have them around.

Dana Beach is Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation League. The present article is the third in a series of guest columns from a variety of organizations and points of view.

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The Nerve