By any reasonable measure, the General Assembly gets a grade of “D” for its legislative performance — or lack thereof — over the two-year session that draws to a close at the end of this week.
In this case, “D” is for dysfunction. Why? Because members of the Legislature continue to thwart progress for the real needs of everyday South Carolina by paying too much attention to nonsense and their own political hides. Where, one can easily ask, is real leadership that seeks to push the Palmetto State into the 21st century?
Of the 204 bills ratified and sent to Gov. Nikki Haley to be signed into law over the last two years, she vetoed only four, not counting certain parts of last year’s budget. Of the remaining bills that became law, the vast majority dealt with the arcane — state armories (four); wildlife (17), such as limits on how much tarpon can be caught daily; school-related measures (20), such as snow days or changes for specific school districts; realigned voting precincts or election laws (23) and miscellaneous local legislation.
Yes, there were some successes, most notably in education as lawmakers increased 4-year-old kindergarten funding by $25 million last year and are poised to do it again this year, and infused tens of millions into a reading program for early learners. But at what cost? As in many recent years, lawmakers didn’t follow the state’s school funding formula, which requires them to appropriate about $2,800 per pupil. Instead, the proposed budget calls for $2,120 per student. Multiply that by 708,231 expected students and it’s easy to see how schools got shortchanged 10 times as much as the new funding will provide. Over the last six years, lawmakers have underfunded public K-12 education by more than $3 billion.
Another much-touted success was the new Department of Administration, a bill envisioned originally to give the governor more control over state agencies.
But last-minute compromises eroded the real reform of the bill into little more than a name change — kind of like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Accomplishments from 2013 included a big incentive package for Boeing, tax rebates to lure more movies to be made here, the new Public Employees Benefit Authority, a controversial photo identification requirement for voters and laxer rules to promote venture capital investment. In 2014, lawmakers got rid of a high school exit exam requirement, named a state fossil (the woolly mammoth) and toughened rules on drunken driving. And somewhere in all of that hoopla was the measure that lets folks take guns into bars and restaurants, yet another nod to America’s weird fascination with guns and more guns.
But look at all of the things that are missing in action:
• No Medicaid expansion to allow 200,000 people to get access to Obamacare.
• No reform of the Department of Social Services, which is under increasing attack for not protecting vulnerable children.
• No real reform of the state Department of Corrections, which is under a court order to improve conditions for the mentally ill.
• No systemic tax reform to better balance revenues, such as eliminating billions of giveaways from sales tax exemptions.
• No real efforts to deal with South Carolina’s hungry. Some 890,000 people in the state — one in five — get federal food stamps. Meanwhile the Haley administration wants a pilot program in three counties to curb people from getting them.
With less than a week to go in the session, two major pieces of legislation continue to vie for a compromise as lawmakers wheedle and cajole to get passage — real ethics reform and more money for highways, which are in a pitiful state. Don’t be surprised if neither passes.
Legislators are generally good people. But the environment in which they work — a state still gripped by a plantation mentality and a lack of a common agenda to push the state forward — makes it hard to get tough things done. Add to that the ascendance of the narrow agenda of the tea party and now reasonable people have a harder time solving real problems because they’re fending off more craziness.
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