Senate Considering Separate “DOT Reform” Bill


[UPDATE: The Senate Transportation Committee has passed an amended version of the bill to the full Senate. We’ll have an updated analysis when amendments are made available.]

At the South Carolina State House, the word “reform” is abused more than any other. It’s used to describe all sorts of minor changes to state law, many of them meaningless. Notoriously, the allegedly historic government restructuring “reform” of 2013 changed so little that it was virtually forgotten the minute it passed. (It did change the name of the old Budget and Control Board, however.)

The word has repeatedly attached itself to negligible bills that would change the state’s road-funding system – most prominently in the 2007 “DOT reform” bill that seems to have done very little to improve the system’s accountability. 

More recently, there is a “DOT reform” bill currently in the Senate Transportation Committee that appears destined to become part of the Senate’s all-encompassing roads bill. (Gov. Haley has indicated that any roads bill, in order to get her signature, would need to contain “real reform to the Department of Transportation.”) 

The bill in Senate Transportation, however, is thus far irredeemably flawed:

S.561 would expand the Department of Transportation (DOT) Commission from seven to nine members, and would make all members of the commission appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the senate.

That part sounds good, but hold on.

Under current law, DOT commissioners are elected by the legislative delegations of South Carolina’s federal election districts, and commissioners must be approved as “qualified” by the Joint Transportation Review Committee (JTRC) before they can serve. The JTRC is dominated by legislative leaders (either they or their appointees sit on the panel). Thus the same legislative leaders who now dominate DOT’s governing board would continue to exercise outsize influence.

The bill would also remove the DOT Commission’s authority to appoint a chief internal auditor. In its place the bill creates a new division within the Office of Inspector General that will provide the exclusive internal audit function for the DOT.

The new DOT Commission would appoint the DOT secretary with the approval of the governor and the advice and consent of the Senate. Appointment of the Secretary is currently a responsibility of the governor.

Finally, 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 Commission.
  • The requirement that the 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.

Creating a truly independent auditor for DOT is a proper reform, but allowing legislative leaders to continue to hold influence over DOT management – in the form of the JTRC – is not. The continued JTRC involvement in DOT management decisions would neuter the new appointment powers granted to the governor.

Genuine DOT reform has to mean nothing less than abolishing the DOT commission and placing all administrative and policy responsibilities with the Secretary of Transportation appointed by the governor. The legislatively controlled JTRC – a body that’s totally unaccountable to the public – should have no say in who serves in leadership positions within the DOT.

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