How small groups of lawmakers control massive state institutions

There is little question that South Carolina lawmakers exert tremendous power over state government, and consequently, the life everyday citizens. This topic is something the Policy Council has researched extensively over the years, and is perhaps best illustrated by our report titled “Who Runs South Carolina State Government?“ published in 2017.  

Our latest project returns to the subject of legislative power, this time looking at how groups of lawmakers representing the state’s 46 counties, called “legislative delegations”, have authority over crucial state institutions, while facing little, if any, transparency.

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What do they control? 

These powerful groups of lawmakers exert control over nearly every aspect of life in South Carolina, including education policy, local road projects, and the appointment of powerful judges.  

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How delegations control education

They elect 16 of 17 members on the state board of education  

Groups of legislative delegations elect 16 of the 17 members on the S.C. State Board of Education. With regard to education, the board is South Carolina’s top policy-making body, and has the power to: 

  • Grant teaching certificates (including hearing teacher disciplinary matters) 
  • Approve textbooks and other education materials  
  • Approve the Department of Education’s annual budget request 
  • Adopt education standards for every level of public school, which are used to develop a school curriculum at the district level  

They control nearly half of the appointments to the Commission on Higher Education  

Groups of delegations control who the governor may appoint for 7 out of 15 seats on the Commission on Higher Education (CHE), as the governor may only select an individual first recommended by the lawmakers from his/her region. The Senate must also confirm all 15 of the governor’s nominees.  

The commission exists as an oversight agency to the state’s numerous colleges and universities. Among other responsibilities, the CHE has to approve all new academic programs before they can be offered by a school and must sign off on construction projects/building acquisitions.  

They control a majority of appointments to the state technical college board  

Groups of delegations control 7 of 11 appointments to the State Board for Technical and Comprehensive Education, which is the entity charged with supervising the technical college system (similar to how the CHE oversees state colleges and universities).  

Individual county delegations, meanwhile, either elect or control appointments to a range of technical college governing boards, including, but not limited to:  

  • Northeastern Technical College Area Commission – Appointments for 9 of 12 seats are controlled by the by the Chesterfield, Marlboro and Dillon County delegations 
  • Denmark Technical College Area Commission Appointments – Appointments for 6 of the 8 seats are controlled by the Allendale, Bamberg and Barnwell County delegations 
  • Florence-Darlington Technical College Area Commission – Appointments for all 10 seats are controlled by the Florence and Darlington County delegations 
  • Technical College of the Lowcountry Area Commission – Appointments for all 7 seats are controlled by the Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper County delegations  

In some cases, delegations even exert control over the finances of these technical schools. For instance, the operating budgets of Trident Technical College and York Technical College must be approved by the delegations in their jurisdiction, and the Western Carolina Technical College may borrow money in anticipation of taxes or appropriations only with delegation approval.  

They appoint members to regional education centers  

Delegations appoint advisory boards for the state’s numerous regional education centers. Under state law, these centers provide career planning and education support, facilitate connections between business and education leaders, and help develop workforce education programs. 

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How delegations control transportation  

They control a majority of appointments to the S.C. Department of Transportation Commission 

While the governor technically appoints all nine commission members, seven must be confirmed by the legislative delegations representing the state’s congressional districts. The other two appointees must be confirmed by the entire General Assembly.  

It’s worth noting that for delegations, the question of whether to approve an appointee selected by the governor does not have to occur during an official delegation meeting, depriving citizens of the necessary transparency that should usually accompany important public decisions.  

The commission is the governing body of the State Department of Transportation, which is responsible for maintaining the state road system, as well as coordinating state and federal highway programs. The commission also appoints the transportation secretary (with Senate confirmation), whose job it is to ensure that such road projects are promptly completed.  

They control appointments to county transportation committees, which spend county road funds and decide which roads get fixed first 

Delegations appoint members to county transportation committees, or “CTCs”, which develop a local transportation plan and decide how their county’s share of gas-tax funds are spent and which roads get fixed first. The law also states that nothing prevents delegations from making project recommendations to the transportation committees. This, coupled with the fact that committee members owe their jobs to their respective delegation, would suggest that delegations have far more influence over road projects than your average citizen.  

However, a delegation may choose to abolish a CTC at any time and transfer its powers to county government. This system would offer more accountability for community transportation decisions, given they would be made by locally elected officials, not individuals appointed by lawmakers.  

They approve reimbursements when roads and bridges are renamed 

When a road or bridge is named after someone in South Carolina, the manufacturing and overhead costs are paid for using local road repair funds. However, this reimbursement must be approved by the legislative delegation of the county in which the road/bridge sign will be located. 

The Nerve found that over roughly a two-year period, 94 road and bridge naming signs cost taxpayers a total $28,776, funds that would have otherwise been used to repair local roads. 

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How Senate delegations control magistrates (the judiciary)

Senators, sometimes just one, control magistrate judge appointments  

While magistrates are technically appointed by the governor and confirmed with by the Senate, the governor may only appoint someone who is first recommended by the Senate delegation of county where the magistrate will serve. The Nerve, which has reported extensively on this subject, found that in 12 counties, single-senator delegations control appointments for 54 magistrates. In 17 counties, magistrate appointments are controlled by just two senators.  

Magistrate courts, as The Nerve describes, are “are important because they are the highest court level that many affected S.C. citizens typically will experience”. Generally, the have criminal trial jurisdiction over cases involving fines up to $500 and imprisonment not exceeding 30 days. They also handle civil cases when the amount in question doesn’t exceed $7,500.  

Another issue is that magistrate judges often serve long after their term has expired. While magistrates are appointed for four-year terms, state law technically allows them to serve “until their successor is appointed and qualified”, meaning they can keep their position until their Senate delegation recommends a replacement. Earlier this year, The Nerve found that one magistrate had been in “holdover status” for almost 19 years.   

Senate delegations can add/reduce magistrate positions, as well as change their work status 

A senatorial delegation can change the number, location and full or part-time status of the magistrates in their county if the local county government agrees to the changes. The only limitation under the law is that a magistrate’s salary cannot be decreased during their time in office.  

Delegations control master-in-equity appointments  

After being found qualified by the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (the legislative board responsible for screening prospective judges), the governor may only “appoint” someone for the position of master-in-equity if they have been recommended by the appropriate county delegation. In other words, the governor is merely signing off on who the delegation has picked for the job. If the governor rejects their candidate, the delegation may simply submit another name until the governor gives his approval.  

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It’s should be noted that, in addition to the control exerted by delegations over magistrate and master-in-equity judges, the General Assembly is responsible for electing the remainder of the state’s judges. South Carolina is one of only two states where the Legislature plays a primary role in selecting judges.  

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How delegations control airports

They control appointments to regional airport boards 

South Carolina’s major airports are governed by special public bodies called airport commissions or authorities, depending on the region. According to state law, these entities have the legal authority to plan, construct, operate and even police all the public airports that fall within their jurisdiction.  

While running a local airport may seem like a local responsibility, a majority of appointments on the state’s biggest airport governing boards are controlled by legislative delegations – not county officials.  

Here’s a quick breakdown

  • 10 of 12 members on the Richland-Lexington Airport Commission are appointed directly by the Richland and Lexington County Delegations (each get five appointments) 
  • All 6 members on the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport Commission are *technically* appointed by the governor, but only after being nominated by their county delegation (each county delegation, Greenville and Spartanburg, gets three nominations). This rule is frequently used in state law to preserve legislative power while promoting the illusion of executive control 
  • 6 of 11 members on the Charleston County Aviation Authority are similarly appointed by the governor after first being nominated by the county delegation (The House and Senate delegations representing Charleston County each nominate three members) 

Unsurprisingly, the decision to put legislative delegations in charge of these boards has not always produced ideal results. Take for example the case of retired S.C. Senator Paul Campbell, who was allowed to serve as CEO of the Charleston County Aviation Authority (CCAA) for seven years while simultaneously working as a state lawmaker, despite concerns about dual-office holding. Also consider that, as a former member of the Charleston County Legislative Delegation, Campbell played a role in the appointing board members to the CCAA, whose job it is to hire the CEO (click here to read more about Campbell’s history as CEO).

What do these boards actually do? 

Generally speaking, state law gives these entities near total control of public airport operations that fall within their district (within the bounds of federal law). On a practical basis, these responsibilities include:  

  • Maintaining airport runways, terminals, access roads, and utilities; 
  • Managing airport advertising; 
  • Providing space for and awarding contracts to restaurants, gift shops and other concessions;  
  • Hiring airport executive leadership and staff; and 
  • Approving airport expansion projects (state law gives airport commissions/authorities the power of eminent domain) 

Critically, airport governing boards also have the authority to issue millions in bonds paid for by local taxpayers.  

According to state law, a number of regional airport districts can issue local general obligation bonds to pay for airport maintenance, construction, expansion and more. This debt would be repaid using a new property tax triggered on every taxpayer within the airport district (which can span multiple counties) and would remain in effect until the principal and interest debt were paid. Before such bonds can be issued, the deal would have to be approved by the legislative delegations representing the counties within the airport district.  

They control seats on the S.C. Aeronautics Commission (which tracks use of the state-owned planes)

Delegations representing the state’s seven congressional district each elect a member to serve on the S.C. Aeronautics Commission, while the governor appoints one member to represent the state at-large.  

While regional authorities are primarily responsible for the airports within their districts, the commission is South Carolina’s central authority on public use airports (although the two often work together). A primary responsibility of the commission is maintaining the state aviation plan, which includes a lengthy inventory of relevant aviation assets and is used to shape the airport system as a whole. It also must approve the state purchase of any aeronautic assets.  

According to state law, the commission is technically part of the S.C. Department of Commerce, and is consequently tasked with promoting economic development. Part of this responsibility includes administering grants to airports for a variety of capital improvement projects.  

Finally, the commission is responsible for maintaining flights logs for the state’s two publicly owned planes – which are regularly misused by public officials. While the planes can only be used for “official state business”, that definition has been stretched by lawmakers and others to include regular trips to conferences, award ceremonies and even for recruiting college athletes (read more here). According to the Post and Courier, the state’s more expensive plane costs $1,500 per hour to operate. 

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How delegations control environmental and recreation policy

They elect commissioners to the Department of Agriculture  

Of the 17 commissioners governing the Department of Agriculture, 16 are elected by legislative delegations. The remaining commissioner is appointed by the governor with Senate confirmation. Among other responsibilities, the commission must approve the department’s annual budget request before it is submitted to the General Assembly. 

They get preference on how to use a state water recreation fund  

While the Department of Natural Resources technically oversees the state’s “water recreational resources” fund (used to improve public waterways and even support boating activities), county delegations may offer projects recommendations, which the state law requires get “primary consideration over any other projects”.  

They control appointments to numerous regional land and wildlife preservation entities 

Delegations control appointments to over ten regional preservation entities across the state. Several examples include the Lake Paul Wallace Authority, the Darlington County Fish and Game Advisory Committee, the Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Advisory Committee, and Catawba-Wateree Fish and Game Commission.  

The purpose of these entities ranges from maintaining land and historic property, to advising how to spend proceeds from a special stamp program run by the Department of Natural Resources.  

Influence over hunting and fishing 

If there are “abnormal conditions” affecting the supply of wild game in a particular county, that county’s legislative delegation may request to have the hunting season shortened or even closed. A person found hunting during the closed season would face up to 30 days in jail for the violation.  

Furthermore, if it “appears that foxes are destroying bird, poultry, pigs … or other property” in a given county, the county delegation can request the Department of Natural Resources to declare “open season on foxes” for as long as the delegation deems necessary.  

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If nothing else, the powers listed above demonstrate that legislative delegations still maintain tremendous control not just in their communities, but across the entire state. The Home Rule Act, which took effect in 1976, was meant to let local governments decide local issues, but failed to effectively dissolve the power of delegations. Until this matter is addressed, there is little reason to believe South Carolina’s institutions will be accountable to the public.  

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