Used to be that when people went into public service as legislators, they helped to do great things that really benefitted people.
At the federal level, think about the interstate system (Eisenhower), envisioning putting a man on the moon and all the cool stuff that came from that (Kennedy), civil rights legislation (Johnson), Medicare and Medicaid (Johnson), expanding freedom (Reagan) and, regardless of what you think of it, the Affordable Care Act (Obama).
At the state level, past leaders created the technical college system, educational television, boosted manufacturing, raised taxes for better education and built lots of roads — so many that we now have a hard time maintaining them.
But as is frequent in politics, it’s normal to ask, “What have you done for me lately?”
The blatantly obvious answer is, “Not much.”
Sure, it’s good the Legislature passes budgets and keeps most of the state’s agencies running. It’s great the state Senate is looking into the big mess at the state Department of Social Services. It’s certainly helpful for the state Department of Commerce to lure more jobs here.
But that’s what they’re supposed to do. What about thinking big to do things that would really impact South Carolinians, one in five of whom are on food stamps?
When we posed this question a week or so ago to a group of people trying to better understand what was going on in the state, the best answer we got was that lawmakers in the last 25 years had gotten rid of miscegenation — the law that made it illegal for people of different races to marry.
Really? That’s it? Sure, some of the folks in the group weren’t from South Carolina, but it’s pretty pitiful if 35 smart people can’t come up with more than that. That is not a reflection on them, but it is telling in so many ways.
What it should highlight is just how little actually gets accomplished by legislators that is really meaningful for most South Carolinians.
Over the last 25 years, two highlights are the state lottery, which has generated $3.4 billion for education since 2002, and the Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which currently funds $549 million in highway projects.
One cynic, however, pointed out that both are responses to a failing political structure. The Legislature wouldn’t pay more for higher education with tax dollars, so they let residents — many of them poor — gamble away their few dollars in hopes of winning and, in turn, helping to pay for college for mostly white middle-class kids. Similarly, state legislators couldn’t keep their fingers out of the transportation pot for pet roads, so they had to create another agency that could get things done that really needed to be done.
In the last 25 years, legislators also created the state Conservation Bank to protect property, but they have to argue every year whether to give it a few million dollars to protect special places. They’ve done sentencing reform, which is slowly dropping the prison population by lowering numbers of nonviolent prisoners in jail. Legislative funding helped to cut the teen pregnancy rate in half. And lawmakers funded pro-business measures that most people don’t recall readily.
But this is also the state that turned the tax structure on its head with the Act 388 tax swap that replaced some property taxes with higher sales taxes, which put a larger burden on the poor and middle class. Legislators also took the Confederate flag off the Statehouse dome, only to put it in a more conspicuous place in front of the State House.
One wag notes, “Maybe the story is nothing has been accomplished!” over the last 25 years. Another bitterly skewers our leaders, “That bunch in Columbia is such a bunch of lightweights, they wouldn’t even leave footprints in the newly driven snow.”
On balance for 25 years, is this a record for us to break out the champagne? Lots of South Carolinians are still poor, hungry and uneducated. Makes you wonder why those legislators meet so long and so often in Columbia. How about if they just stay home next year?
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