State House Report
Who’s in Charge in S.C.?
Plus: Legislative Session Ends with Leadership Deficit
On the day before the 70th anniversary of the nation’s greatest generation leading the charge to restore freedom in Europe, the state’s government is suffering from a leadership deficit, according to several observers and participants.
• Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell (R-Charleston) threatened to leave office early as he transitions to the presidency of the College of Charleston. He ended up staying on for a bit.
• State Sen. John Courson (R-Columbia) stepped down from McConnell’s previous seat, president pro tempore of the Senate, so he didn’t have to give up a plum office and a three-decade career in the Legislature to take over McConnell’s office.
• In the House, Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston) operates under an enduring cloud of suspicion, as the state’s attorney general investigates potential campaign finance irregularities — the same kind of allegations that recently ended the long career of a Democratic senator from Harrell’s hometown.
Combined, the two chambers ended what critics contend was a lackluster legislative session in which few of the state’s pressing needs were addressed and more time was given to headlines than policy.
Downstairs, in Gov. Nikki Haley’s first-floor offices, damage control is the order of the day in the wake of more turnover in her cabinet.
• At the beginning of the session in January, S.C. Department of Transportation Executive Director Robert St. Onge resigned after a DUI arrest in which it was alleged that his blood-alcohol ratio was twice the state’s legal limit.
• On June 2, as lawmakers sped toward the end of the regular session, state Department of Social Services Director Lillian Koller stepped down amid close Senate scrutiny and loud criticism of the job she was doing on Haley’s behalf.
Koller’s agency had become the target of concern over the number of deaths of children under the agency’s supervision, its high caseloads and other failures. Koller had also been criticized for not being available for Senate hearings, leading, in part, to several senators calling for her resignation.
The cabinet scorecard will certainly become a brickbat in the gubernatorial campaign of Haley’s opponent, Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who already has zeroed in on other administration messes, including a massive computer hacking at the Department of Revenue, a “botched” tuberculosis response by the Department of Health and Environmental Control and hundreds of millions of dollars of improper Medicaid payouts by the state Department of Health and Human Services [online copy corrected
]. (Editor's note: DHHS head Tony Keck has argued that the state's high rate of improper Medicaid payouts points to a need for continued modernization and streamlining of the program.)
Shuffling chairs,pointing fingers
Critics and observers wanted to see the Legislature tackle important issues this year, such as the $27 billion in defined infrastructure needs.
Or ethics and transparency issues.
Or more fully funding public and higher education.
Or addressing the state’s system tax structure problems.
Or dealing with the state’s public health care system.
“Instead,” in the words of Senate Democratic Caucus spokesman Phil Bailey, “we spent an entire month on Obamacare nullification, which was eventually ruled out of order” and nothing was enacted.
South Carolina Policy Council head Ashley Landess is equally blunt: “Whatever side you were on — more money for schools or more choice, and whether you wanted Medicaid expansion or Medicaid reform — whatever citizens were looking for, they have not gotten it,” she says. “The bottom line is, no one is happy.”
Landess puts the blame on an entrenched few in the Legislature, who take care of friends and pet projects over the good of the state, aided by a structure of government that doesn’t allow for much transparency.
Harrell’s spokesman, Greg Foster, seemed to blame the Senate.
“All I’m saying is that the only time we have historically seen major reforms passed in South Carolina is when the Senate is up for election,” Foster says. “This year, it’s the House.”
Foster recited a list of bills that passed the House but have died, repeatedly, in the Senate. “Like the creation this year of the Department of Administration; the House passed it five times in the past.”
Foster says the bill that passed was a compromise bill, because of recalcitrant senators from both sides of the aisle.
Bailey counters that such a response was Foster’s “default position. He always blames the Senate.”
What’s really going on?
College of Charleston political science department chair Gibbs Knotts, who will soon have McConnell as a boss, finds it “interesting” that political leadership isn’t more of a statewide issue.
Whereas many may blame the state’s conservative political base, Knotts says it’s a far more complicated issue.
He says that with the rise of GOP factions like the tea party, “it becomes more important to have people in place with the ability to coordinate a wide range of factions and political parties in a common direction and preside over important issues.”
Knotts says he believes issues could trump politics and personalities sooner instead of later.
“With certain issues like infrastructure and roads … issues that affect a wide range of factions and the vast majority of the people, and not to mention business interests, will win.”