Bill Removes Accountability from Road Funding
LEGISLATION WOULD REMOVE WHAT LITTLE ACCOUNTABILITY AND TRANSPARENCY STILL REMAIN IN SOUTH CAROLINA’S ROAD FUNDING SYSTEM
● Bill empowers murky government entities called “COGs”
● Removes governor’s power to appoint DOT secretary
● Process to nominate commissioners convoluted, confusing
● Governor would “nominate” commissioners, but could only choose from among lawmakers’ preferred candidates
The latest attempt to “reform” South Carolina’s road funding system isn’t so much weak as regressive: It would actually make the system less accountable to taxpayers. Gov. Haley has indicated that any roads bill must contain “real reform to the Department of Transportation.” We don’t know what will count as reform to the governor, but S.561 is the opposite in every respect.
What would constitute real reform, of course, is putting the Department of Transportation directly under the governor. Putting transportation funding under one official elected statewide is the only way to ensure equitable and rational funding for all the state’s roads.
The current system gives power to set road funding policy to the DOT commission. DOT commissioners are appointed by legislative delegations (that is, lawmakers) and approved by the legislatively controlled Joint Transportation Review Commission (so, lawmakers and their appointees).
The latest reform, authored by Sen. Larry Grooms, would seem to allow the governor to nominate DOT commissioners, but her choice would be so circumscribed as to be nothing but a choice between legislatively approved candidates. Here’s how it would work:
- The Department of Transportation (DOT) commission would expand from seven to ten members.
- Ten regional government bodies called Councils of Government, or COGs, would nominate three candidates for membership on the commission. (COGs, for the great majority of South Carolinians who’ve never heard of them, are regional government entities created by agreement between adjacent counties.)
- The governor would appoint one of the three candidates from each COG. But the Joint Transportation Review Committee (JTRC) – to repeat, a body made up of legislators and their appointees – would screen each of the governor’s appointments to determine if he or she is qualified.
- Finally, the screened appointees would be confirmed by the full Senate.Each commissioner would serve a six year term, and no individual would be eligible to serve more than one term.
In essence, then, the governor’s choice would be among three people chosen by COGs (who would likely be chosen, de facto, by lawmakers). And if she makes a choice lawmakers don’t like for one reason or another, they still have two more chances to scuttle the nomination. The fact that, under this arrangement, the governor wouldn’t be empowered to fire commissioners simply reinforces the executive’s powerlessness: the governor wouldn’t nominate commissioners, not really, and he or she couldn’t get rid of them.
The new “reform” goes even further by stripping the current system of the one component that actually promoted accountability: Instead of the governor appointing the secretary of the DOT commission, the commission itself would choose its own secretary.
The proposed new system, furthermore, doesn’t eliminate the role of the unaccountable JTRC, the body that currently screens DOT commissioners. Rather it removes legislative delegations of congressional districts as the bodies that elect DOT commissioners, and replaces them with COGs.
For the record, COGs are even less accountable than legislative delegations, for this simple reason: citizens don’t vote anyone into a COG. Membership on the policymaking body of a COG is left up to member counties, except for the requirement that a majority of members must be members of the governing bodies of participating cities and counties. And of course legislators still have influence over COGs: one member of the legislative delegation of each participating county is eligible to serve on a COG.
Removing powers from the DOT commission?
In addition to the structural changes made to the DOT administration, the bill removes some powers of the DOT Commission. The powers removed include:
- The authority to award all federal enhancement grants.
- The requirement that any addition to or subtractions from the state highway system be approved by the DOT commission.
- The requirement that the DOT commission must give its prior authorization to any consulting contracts advertised for or awarded by the department and authorize the selection of consultants by department personnel.
- The requirement that DOT receive commission authorization before selling surplus property.
- The requirement that the DOT commission must authorize any DOT contract over $500,000.
- The requirement that any request made for resurfacing, installation of new signals, curb cuts on primary roads, bike lanes, or construction projects under $10 million must be reviewed and approved by the commission.
The powers removed from the commission would seem to fall to the DOT secretary by default. On the face of it, the thinking appears to be that with the DOT secretary now chosen by the commission, not by the governor, it would be safe to allow that official to run DOT.