Why Did Reform Die in 2013?
WHEN THE ISSUE IS THE PRESERVATION OF POWER, REFORM HASN’T GOT A CHANCE
In 2013, despite all the rhetoric with which the legislative year began, lawmakers failed to pass a single reform. The question is: Why? Putting aside any unbecoming motivations lawmakers might have had to resist reforms in ethics law, the state’s government structure, infrastructure funding, and health care, reform legislation in these areas typically dies for one reason: because state government, and particularly the state legislature, has too much power.
Department of Administration
In government restructuring, ostensibly a method of getting rid of the unaccountable Budget and Control Board (BCB) that improperly mixes legislative and executive powers, both the House and Senate versions of the bill would simply create a new Board under different names – either the South Carolina Contracts Authority (SCAA) or the State Fiscal Affairs Authority (SFAA).
As with the current Budget and Control Board, both authorities would have executive members as well as members appointed by leading legislators. Procurement, an indisputably executive function, would be placed with the SFAA in the Senate version, and given to the SCAA for procurements over $500,000 in the House version. Bonding, a properly legislative function (bonding is an appropriation of money), would be left to the respective authorities in each version of the bill. Finally, deficit recognition – again a properly legislative function since it deals with appropriations – is given to the General Assembly by the House and to an executive agency (for deficits under $1 million) by the Senate.
The House and Senate both passed their version of the DOA bill but were unable to create a conference bill before the end of session. So: as long as lawmakers persist in picking which executive functions to keep and which legislative functions to continue avoiding – that is, instead of simply putting these function under their proper branches – final agreement will be virtually impossible.
The principal ethics reform bill began life as an empty “shell bill” with legislators adding provisions behind closed doors – hardly a promising start. The initial publicly available version actually decriminalized a number of ethics violations. Among them: using campaign funds for personal use, using government office for personal gain, and nepotism in government appointments. The bill would also have required citizens to register as lobbyists before testifying before any legislative committees. While these egregious provisions were discarded after they were exposed by The Nerve, the final version of the bill unsurprisingly neglected to address perhaps the most important ethics issue in South Carolina: the infinitely corruptible process by which legislative ethics hearings are adjudicated by legislators themselves – a process that incentivizes unethical quid pro quo arrangements and generates little real accountability or public trust.
The House passed the bill, but senators, instead of taking the obvious step of outsourcing adjudication on ethics matters to an independent agency, haggled over the issue until the bill was successfully filibustered.
The central issue has been an alleged lack of sufficient funding to maintain South Carolina’s existing roads and bridges. In reality the problem with infrastructure maintenance lies not with revenues but with expenditures. South Carolina has the fourth largest state-controlled roadway system in the nation despite being the 40th largest state in land mass and the 24th largest in population. These discrepancies are due to the Department of Transportation’s pursuit of federal funds – funds that must be matched and in many cases used on new construction. The result: continuous use of funds for new construction while maintenance is regularly underfunded. Rather than address this issue properly by dedicating a higher percent of funds to maintenance and devolving control of roads back to local governments, the legislature has opted to appropriate $50 million annually to the unaccountable State Transportation Infrastructure Board (STIB). The STIB, which almost exclusively finances new construction projects, will use the $50 million to issue bonds worth up to $500 million and use the proceeds supposedly for road maintenance. The legislature’s plan will also allow the state to assume control of any municipally controlled road in South Carolina if the state deems it “necessary for the interconnectivity of the state highway system.”
In short, the legislature has neglected to address the misuse of funds at the root of our infrastructure woes, instead opting to take on more debt and more miles of road that will need repair. Once again, when the issue became preservation of power in Columbia, lawmakers punted. H.3360 was signed into law by the governor on June 24.
While lawmakers rejected establishing a state-based health exchange under the Affordable Care Act (ACA, commonly called Obamacare) as well as Medicaid expansion, they also introduced budget provisos and heavily sponsored bills that seek to enact similar policies under different names. Shortly after rejecting Medicaid expansion, Republicans introduced budget provisos to spend $62 million on reimbursing hospitals for treating uninsured patients and directing poor patients to federal clinics. After this successful push for increased healthcare spending, a bill was introduced – sponsored, strangely enough, by many who voted to reject Medicaid expansion – to accept federal Medicaid expansion dollars under a different name. (Even stranger, the arrangement may have qualified as a state-based health exchange.)
There has been no effort to introduce free market reforms – reforms, for instance, such as allowing South Carolinians to shop for health insurance across state lines. Opposition to the government takeover of health care in South Carolina has been opposition in name only. The hospital payment provisos were passed along with the budget, while the GOP bill to accept Medicaid expansion funds remains in the House Ways and Means Committee until the return of the legislature. (All of the bills introduced but not passed this year are still eligible for consideration during session next year.)
True reform means taking power out of the hands of politicians and bureaucrats and putting it in the hands of citizens. It won’t happen until elected officials – and particularly legislative leaders – understand that.