How S.C.’s Legislature Bullies Local Governments


The House of Representatives returned for a special one day session on August 27 to address a mere two bills that had been vetoed by the Governor. The first, a bill to allow a form of banishment from public libraries, passed easily with not a word of debate. The second bill (S.293), an authorization of a local tax hike in Murrell’s Inlet and Garden City, generated over an hour of vigorous debate.

While the veto was sustained and S.293 didn’t become law, some of the arguments made on its behalf helped to illuminate a broader mindset that has taken hold in the State House – and among politicians nationally.

The mindset is this: governance from the top, or the most powerful knows best. Supporters of S.293 dismissed arguments that local government and Murrells Inlet/Garden City residents should settle the issue on their own through a referendum, as authorized by state law. It would be a shirking of their duty as representatives of the people, they claimed, to allow the decision to be made on the local level.

The implication from supporters’ arguments was clear: the people elect politicians and that is where their part in any decision making should end. Once elected it is up to more knowledgeable representatives of the people to determine what is in citizens’ best interest. And naturally, the higher the office a politician has been elected to, the more knowledgeable he or she must be, and the more decision-making power he or she should have over both the lives of citizens and the policies supposedly overseen by less powerful politicians. This attitude is particularly apparent in the appointment of members of boards and commissions: the legislature makes more than 420 appointments to executive branch boards and commissions at every level of South Carolina government.

The implication is clear: Lawmakers should have authority at every level of government.

While the supporters of the doctrine of State House supremacy lost the battle for S.293, they long ago won the war in state policy. State lawmakers routinely involve themselves in matters appropriate to local government bodies. Excellent examples have arisen recently in both infrastructure and education.

In South Carolina, the Department of Transportation controls 63 percent of all state roads while the average in other states is 19 percent. In education, policy decisions about testing and standards, and therefore curriculum, are made by unaccountable – indeed, for most South Carolinians, anonymous – state boards like the Education Oversight Committee and the State Board of Education. This distribution of power is primarily what led to the imposition of Common Core in South Carolina. It’s also one of the reasons Common Core can’t be easily removed by a citizenry largely opposed to it.

State legislators also meddle in local education matters without executive branch help. The Dillon County legislative delegation, for example, continues to appoint all the members of the county’s district school boards despite an overwhelming majority of Dillon County voters voting in a non-binding resolution to have the school board popularly elected.

Another case demonstrates the wider political blessing of this policy of state control. Act 294 of 2010 was passed by a “majority” of the legislature – i.e. by two members of the Fairfield County legislative delegation – through the use of unanimous consent requests. The bill in question forced Chester County schools to accept students from the neighboring community of Mitford. This kind of meddling in local policy decisions is not unusual at the legislature, despite a provision in the South Carolina constitution that bans special local legislation that conflicts with or duplicates more general statewide laws. State law already stipulates when students who live on the edge of one district may transfer to a school in their non-home district. Despite the constitutional provision and existing state law, the state Supreme Court gave its blessing to this State House meddling when it found Act 294 constitutional in 2014.

Finally, state lawmakers have harmed South Carolinians by adhering to the higher office supremacy theory when it comes to the federal government. The state legislature has consistently traded the control it possesses over statewide policy to the federal government in exchange for funding. This sovereignty for cash deal has resulted in a broken road funding system, the statewide acceptance of Common Core, and an unsustainable health entitlement program. While the state legislature accepts these policies from the federal government, they in turn force them upon localities.

It’s also worth noting that as the statehouse imposes all of these policies on localities, it simultaneously raids the local government fund, thereby withholding the locally raised tax dollars localities need to provide services.

This is not the system envisioned by the nation’s founders. They understood that local governance tends to be more attentive, more knowledgeable, and therefore more effective. America was born out of a war that sprung from complaints of a distant government unresponsive to the will of the people. The authors of the constitution applied this idea on the federal level by making the powers of the federal government few and enumerated, reserving all other powers to the states or people.

The principle that local control is preferable to distant control doesn’t end at the state level. The closer a government is to the people, the more easily citizens can make their satisfaction or dissatisfaction known to those who craft policy. And local elected officials are more likely to be attentive to citizens’ complaints since they have much smaller constituencies. By contrast, as politicians gets further from the people, they become more insulated from criticism and less responsive to large swathes of their constituencies. In fact, higher office politicians are often given the power to make policy decisions over citizens outside their constituencies that effectively render the opinions of the affected peoples irrelevant. Case in point: the Murrell’s Inlet/Garden City tax bill.

If local governments in South Carolina want to reclaim their authority, they’ll have to push back – hard.

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