Eight reforms to take your power back
South Carolina has some of the most powerful politicians in the country. They exercise unwarranted powers over state government and the economy, and face very little accountability for their decisions – creating a breeding ground for corruption. How can South carolinians take their power back?
(1) RESTORE JUDICIAL INDEPENDENCE
The public deserves confidence that judges rule independently of the state Legislature. South Carolina is just one of two states where their legislatures primarily control the election of judges, including those on the S.C. Supreme Court. The selection of county magistrates, meanwhile, is often controlled by just one or two state senators.
To eliminate lawmakers’ stranglehold over the judiciary, the governor should nominate judges with Senate confirmation, as is done at the federal level. Not only would this method reduce the legislative influence crippling our judicial integrity, but also would avoid the inevitable partisan politics that come with popularly electing judges. While this reform would require amending the state Constitution for most state judgeships, fixing the selection process for magistrates would only need a change of state law.
(2) STRIP LAWMAKERS OF THEIR EXECUTIVE POWERS
South Carolina lawmakers control state and local affairs through a complicated web of boards and commissions that have executive powers, making it difficult for citizens to know who to hold responsible for important public decisions. As the state’s chief executive, the governor should control appointments to state boards/commissions – or better yet, eliminate or consolidate those panels when possible.
There also are too many statewide constitutional officers such as the Comptroller General, Treasurer, Agriculture Commissioner and Secretary of State. The number of constitutional officers should be reduced and made part of the governor’s cabinet, centralizing accountability under a single executive officer.
Similarly, local matters should be decided by local officials. That means every regional board and committee currently under legislative control should be appointed by local governments.
(3) SHORTEN LEGISLATIVE SESSIONS
Our state has one of the longest legislative sessions in the Southeast – a model that promotes government growth and excessive regulation. Lawmakers should only be in Columbia as long as it takes to pass the state budget and address the most urgent taxpayer issues.
Regular legislative sessions generally should be limited to 90 calendar days or 45 legislative days, a period much closer to the average session length of our neighbors. Not only would this keep lawmakers focused on their basic responsibilities, but also would limit the time they spend each year filing hundreds of frivolous resolutions. In fact, these resolutions should be banned outright, as they function as little more than campaign tools for lawmakers by way of rewarding handpicked constituents and allies.
More recently, lawmakers have made it a habit to return to Columbia on multiple occasions after the regular session has ended. While finalizing the budget is often the stated reason, their end-of-session rules permit them consider a slew of non-essential legislative issues. This practice must end. If lawmakers must reconvene for a special session, it should be reserved for the budget or true emergencies.
(4) END LAWMAKERS’ ABILITY TO POLICE THEMSELVES
Unlike other officeholders, state House and Senate members police their own ethics violations, and much of the process is secret. The standing legislative ethics committees should be abolished, and all complaints be handled by the State Ethics Commission, which should immediately forward all criminal complaints to the S.C. Attorney General’s Office and punish lawmakers for other substantiated violations, including issuing fines.
It’s also worth debunking lawmakers’ claim that the S.C. Constitution requires them to judge and punish their own members for ethical infractions. The constitution states that “each house shall … punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member, but not a second time for the same cause.”
This section clearly refers to lawmakers’ behavior during their legislative proceedings, such as floor activity at the State House or during committee meetings. The idea that legislators should police each other’s ethical violations does not hold up to legal scrutiny.
(5) FORCE OFFICIALS TO REPORT ALL PUBLIC INCOME
The public has no way to ensure that elected state and local officials don’t personally profit from legislation they sponsor or vote on when they legally can hide certain income sources on their annual statements of economic interests. State law was changed several years ago to require public officials to report their private income sources – a reform we pushed for – but it didn’t go far enough.
Currently, officials generally are required to disclose income they earn directly from government. That’s a good start, but they also make money from government in other ways, such as subcontracting with businesses that receive tax dollars.
(6) POST ALL IMPORTANT PUBLIC RECORDS ONLINE
South Carolina’s freedom-of-information model is a a costly and inefficient way for citizens to obtain important information. State law puts few helpful parameters on what agencies may charge, and many will wait until the statutory deadline to acknowledge whether such records exist. These records belong to the public, not the agencies that produce them.
Going forward, every state and local agency should post all public documents online in an easily identifiable location, making open-records requests and the fees that accompany them largely unnecessary. A similar effort should be made for past agency records. Only in the most extreme cases that require significant labor should agencies charge for requests.
Also, the statutory exemption that shields lawmakers and their staffs from such requests should be eliminated immediately.
(7) OPEN THE STATE’S SECRET INCENTIVES PROCESS
Corruption is virtually guaranteed when public officials have the power to strike secret deals with private companies using public money – which can total hundreds of millions of dollars for just one project. If officials insist on using incentives, taxpayers deserve full transparency on every deal made – including applications for subsidies, disclosure of all incentives awarded, and an annual reporting of required investment and job figures. If companies fail to keep their original promises, taxpayers should be refunded the full amount of all paid incentives.
Ultimately, the state’s reliance on incentives to attract business would not be necessary if our tax structure were simplified and applied more evenly. Ending the long list of sales tax exemptions, for example, would allow us to cut taxes elsewhere to benefit businesses and residents alike.
(8) ENFORCE COMPLETE REPORTING OF STATE BUDGET REQUESTS
When state agencies submit their annual budget requests to the Governor’s Office, the law requires them to justify the entire amount of money they are requesting. Each year, they ignore this rule and only provide an explanation when asking for new funds.
This lack of scrutiny keeps us from asking a simple question necessary for every government program: Do we really need this? These discussions are crucial in the face of South Carolina’s looming $50 billion pension deficit, and current positive economic conditions cannot last forever. The governor must enforce the budget law and require agencies to justify every dollar they request.