Freest State in the Nation?
HOW TO RESTORE SOUTH CAROLINA’S REPUBLICAN FORM OF GOVERNMENT
Who runs South Carolina’s state government? Not the governor, not the judiciary, and certainly not citizens and taxpayers. The legislature dominates our state’s government. Indeed, South Carolina’s legislative supremacy brings to mind James Madison’s definition of tyranny in Federalist no. 47.
The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, selfappointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.
Tyranny, in other words, doesn’t always manifest itself in a single person with dictatorial powers. It can exist in a body of “many,” and this body can be “elective.” That is the case in South Carolina. Our state’s legislature unilaterally appoints judges. It controls entire state agencies through the boards whose members it appoints. It runs economic development schemes without so much as consulting the governor, and it secretly doles out millions in corporate welfare to the companies and groups legislative leaders happen to favor. And through the Budget and Control Board’s bureaucracy, the legislature even controls the executive function of procurement.
For decades, South Carolinians wondered why free-market reforms are next to impossible to pass in one of the most “conservative” states in the country. In countless studies, lawmakers were given overwhelming evidence that these reforms have worked elsewhere in the country and could work in South Carolina – the Policy Council itself published many of these studies – but to little or no avail.
Here’s the reason: Members of the General Assembly enjoy enormous power, they can exercise that power in secret and without accountability, and free-market reforms would require them to give it up. In short: real reforms just aren’t going to happen until things change. But which things need to change? With that question in mind, we’ve identified eight reforms that must take place before any substantive free-market policy changes can take place in South Carolina. Until these reforms happen, expect more free-market rhetoric in the absence of actual reform. But when these reforms do come about, we’ve got ourselves a republic again – and the policy changes we’ve hoped to see for so long will finally have a chance.
Reform No. 1: Restore judicial independence.
Why do we need it? The public deserves confidence that judges rule independently of the legislature whose laws they judge. South Carolina is the only state in the nation in which the legislature unilaterally appoints judges even when vacancies arise. The governor should nominate judges, with advice and consent from the Senate.
Reform No. 2: Make the governor fully accountable for the Executive Branch.
Why do we need it? The South Carolina legislature possesses many powers that belong properly to the Executive Branch. For example: Legislators control more than 420 appointments to the Executive Branch – more than half the number the governor appoints. Four legislators control about 150 Executive Branch appointments. And the legislature, not the governor, controls procurement, making responsibility for purchasing decision difficult or impossible to track.
The state’s 250-plus boards and commissions, moreover, should be put under the governor: too often these bodies don’t exist to serve the taxpayer but to limit competition, and there is no one to hold accountable for their decisions. In addition, there are far too many constitutional officers (that is, statewide executive officers like the Adjutant General, Comptroller General, Agriculture Commissioner, and Secretary of State). These little executive fiefdoms dilute accountability for executive decisions. Many of these offices make no sense: why, for example, is a part-time Lieutenant Governor put in charge of a full-time agency, the Office on Aging? The number of constitutional officers should be reduced, making them directly accountable to the governor.
Reform No. 3: Shorten legislative sessions that favor career politicians over citizen-legislators.
Why do we need it? South Carolina has one of the longest legislative sessions in the country. Long sessions create more demand for lobbyists, more special interest legislation, and they favor career politicians over citizen-legislators (only a tiny minority of the state’s citizens can support themselves financially while spending half the year or more in Columbia). A sensible reform would be to mandate an end to sessions by the second Friday in April – making each one last roughly 90 calendar days – and cap them at 45 legislative days. Also: sessions should be held every two years, as is done in Texas: that would encourage legislators to prioritize core taxpayer concerns over insignificant matters and special-interest concerns.
Reform No. 4: Open the state’s secret incentives process.
Why do we need it? Every year, lawmakers and government officials hand out millions of public dollars tax breaks and cash to private companies – and virtually nothing of these deals are made public. After decades of this, our state is still at the bottom. It’s time for openness. If companies want state aid, they should apply for it publicly. And if the state gives a private company taxpayer-financed favors, the company should be held accountable – targets should be met, or the taxpayers recouped.
Reform No. 5: End lawmakers’ ability to police themselves.
Why do we need it? Unlike other officeholders, House and Senate members police their own ethics violations – and much of the process is kept private. There’s no reason why lawmakers shouldn’t be accountable to the same ethics laws that govern every other elected official. Adjudication of ethics violations should be given to an outside authority, the Ethics Commission.
Reform No. 6: All South Carolina elected officials should report their income sources.
Why do we need it? Our state’s politicians don’t have to disclose the sources of their income. The result? No one knows whether they’re profiting from the legislation on which they vote. That should end. As is done in Congress and in many other states, lawmakers should be required to disclose every penny of their income.
Reform No. 7: Strengthen the state’s open records law, and abolish lawmakers’ exemption from it.
Why do we need it? South Carolina’s Freedom of Information laws are among the weakest in the country. How? For one thing, state lawmakers are exempt from it. For another, government agencies can drag their feet in complying with FOI requests and charge prohibitive rates for things like photocopying and “labor.” Our FOI law should be overhauled.
Reform No. 8: Enforce the state law that mandates an open budget process.
Why do we need it? State law requires that the governor, not the legislature, write the first draft of the budget, and that the legislature make revisions to governor’s budget in “joint open hearings” – a requirement that’s routinely ignored. But there’s a good reason for the law: Currently, the budget is cobbled together in committees and subcommittees, and citizens can’t track what lawmakers are proposing. Following the law would allow citizens to be engaged with the process from beginning to end. It would also ensure that budget priorities are set by an official elected by the entire state – the governor – rather than by a cadre of legislators elected by a few districts. Moreover, the budget should be easily accessible in an online format to any citizen. A system in which real-time budget numbers are only decipherable to specialists should be a thing of the past.