This week the S.C. legislature reached the mid-point of the 2015 session, so they celebrated by closing up shop and going home for a week or so. Given their lack of substantive achievement so far, I’m not sure anyone will really realize they are gone.
There have been a few important things that they have dealt with, but “dealt with” is the key phrase here. They are dealing with some things but nothing much has been resolved. Let’s look at the list:
Ethics reform -- Despite lots of pious words and self-righteous posturing, nothing much has happened. Gov. Haley has been reduced to showing up at civic clubs around the state and trashing the legislators in the local area who have not supported her bill. Given the fact her bill is so weak to start with, this says a lot about how serious -- or not serious -- the legislature is about real ethics to start with.
Domestic violence -- With women in South Carolina dying from criminal domestic violence at a higher rate than most any state in the nation, you’d think something would get done. So far, the whole thing has become bogged down over the issue of whether we should take guns away from people who have used them to try and kill their spouse or significant other. Most of us learned this lesson in kindergarten, when the teacher took away the scissors from bad Bobby after he tried to cut off one of little Suzie’s pigtails. I guess this lesson does not apply to adults in South Carolina if it’s a .38 special and Bobby’s half drunk.
Highway repair -- Here the legislature just seems to be kicking the can down the road (no pun intended). Unfortunately, the can has fallen into a pothole so deep that it may stay there for a while (sorry, I couldn’t resist). The situation has gotten so bad, the truckers who pay the most in gas taxes are begging the legislature to raise taxes to fix the roads, and the head of Michelin says the roads are so bad it’s hurting their business (and that’s from a tire company).
South Carolina State University (SCSU) -- If there is one prime example of everything wrong with state government, it is how SCSU has been allowed to get into its current mess. It is a compound problem made all the worse by a toxic combination of political corruption, racism (black and white), neglect, incompetence, and just plain old criminal behavior. Everyone agrees something needs to be done -- but no one agrees as to what it is or even who is in charge. They only thing we know for sure is there will be more lawsuits, more wasted time and money, and the students will be the ones who suffer the most.
The state budget -- It seems at least some folks have been working on the budget a little, and this sort of makes sense, as no one’s going to get paid if they don’t get this done. But, by all accounts, the whole process and likely outcome will be “more of the same” with rational, needs based budgeting giving way to politics as usual budgeting.
As bad as their inaction is on these important issues, what’s really an outrage are all the other really important issues that aren’t even on the table. Here are three big ones.
Tax reform/Act 388 -- The one thing most all legislators are in agreement on is our tax system is broken and it doesn’t adequately or equitably fund the basic needs of our state. A few years ago the folks in Columbia made it even worse by passing something called Act 388, which was essentially an economic straight jacket preventing state and local governments from devising a rational, fair tax system. It is almost universally said by Republicans and Democrats alike: we made a big mistake. But, virtually no one is seriously talking about doing something to fix it.
Incumbent protection -- If there were two things which would have the biggest long term positive impact on improving how our state is governed, they would be term limits and an independent re-apportionment commission to eliminate the system of drawing safe legislative seats. Without these, we will continue to have a system which virtually ensures incumbents of both parties are almost automatically reelected.
Now, I’m not so politically naïve as to think this is likely to happen any time soon -- after all, few incumbents want to do anything which might mean losing their job. But such things have passed in other states, so it is possible. Today, in our legislature, and among so-called interest groups as well, almost no one will even acknowledge we have a problem, and there are real, workable solutions.
Technology and government -- We are in the middle (the beginning actually) of the digital revolution. And, indeed, it is a revolution radically impacting every aspect of our society, from finance, to entertainment, to education, to virtually everything. New technology is having a huge impact on how we live our daily lives, so what are we hearing out of state government? Almost nothing.
In other states, they are making great strides in using technology to make government more efficient, work better, and provide quicker services, all at a lower cost. And what is our state government’s plan? Google “SC state government technology plan” and see what you get … lots of bits and pieces, but no overall plan.
So now that the legislature is out of session for a while, maybe they will have a little time to think about what they have done (or not done) so far. And maybe, just maybe, some of them might realize that it’s time for them to take care of the people’s business, and not just their own.
Unless they decide to actually do something constructive, maybe they should just stay home.
(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange.)