What Makes One Lawmaker So Powerful?
SEN. HUGH LEATHERMAN HOLDS A BEWILDERING ARRAY OF STATE OFFICES. HE IS ACCOUNTABLE TO ONLY ONE SENATE DISTRICT. THE RESULT IS PREDICTABLE.
Two of the most powerful offices in South Carolina are the presidency pro tempore of the Senate, and the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Any politician occupying one or the other holds vast sway over South Carolina state government. Since 2014, however, both offices have been held by the same lawmaker – Sen. Hugh Leatherman.
Leatherman, who has chaired Senate Finance since 2001, was made Senate president pro tempore in 2014. Since he does not wish to hold the relatively powerless position of lieutenant governor, Leatherman recently stepped down from the position temporarily in order to let another member take the spot and ascend to the lieutenant governorship. On January 25 his colleagues in the Senate put him back in that role by a vote of 28 to 16.
How many offices?
As Senate Finance chairman, Leatherman serves on or makes appointments to at least 17 state boards, commissions, or committees.
Among the most powerful is the five-member State Fiscal Accountability Authority (SFAA), formerly known as the Budget and Control Board. The SFAA authorizes the sale of state bonds for building projects, approves large purchases and sales of real property by state agencies, and manages state procurement services.
The other body that approves state bonds is the Joint Bond Review Committee (JBRC). Leatherman serves as that committee’s chairman.
As Senate president pro tempore, meanwhile, Leatherman can serve on or appoint members to at least 29 state boards, commissions, or committees.
Among the most important of these: Leatherman controls two appointments to the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC), the body that screens judicial candidates, including Supreme Court justices, for election by the legislature. And he appoints two members of the seven-member board – the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) board – that diverts road money to finance new roads and expansions in politically influential counties.
The president pro tempore also appoints members to the Education Oversight Committee, the Housing Commission, the Lottery Commission, the Review and Oversight Commission of the State Ports Authority, and the Public Employee Benefit Authority.
In some cases, both Leatherman’s offices – Senate presidency pro tempore and Senate Finance chairman – give him appointment powers over the same agency. As Finance chairman, for example, he can appoint one member to the ten-member Joint Transportation Review Committee, which screens Department of Transportation commissioners. (That explains why his son-in-law, John Hardee, sits on the DOT commission.) When he became president pro tempore in 2014, he added two more appointments to that board – giving a single lawmaker the lion’s share of power over the entire state’s road system.
Leatherman is also vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, chairs the Salary Executive and Performance Evaluation Committee, and sits on the Clemson University College of Engineering and Science Advisory Board and Francis Marion University’s board of trustees.
Disregard for the constitution
The South Carolina state constitution specifically bans the practice of dual office-holding:
No person is eligible to a seat in the General Assembly while he holds any office or position of profit or trust under this State, the United States of America, or any of them, or under any other power, except officers in the militia, members of lawfully and regularly organized fire departments, constables, and notaries public. If any member accepts or exercises any of the disqualifying offices or positions, he shall vacate his seat.
True, in 2011 the state Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers, despite the constitution’s clear language on the practice, can sit on
powerful boards while holding office as lawmakers. That ruling was hardly a surprise – rarely has the legislatively appointed court challenged the legislature. But the case of Leatherman turns an occasionally abusive practice into a flagrant affront to the constitution: the Senate Finance chairman and president pro tempore holds not just one or two but a dizzying array of “office[s] or position[s] of profit or trust under this State.”
As if to emphasize the unconstitutionality of the Senate president pro tempore’s multiple offices, he recently declared his intention not to fulfill his constitutional duty by ascending to the lieutenant governorship upon the ascension of Lieutenant Governor Henry McMaster to the governorship.
With vast statewide powers accorded to a single lawmaker – a lawmaker who is only accountable to the voters of one district – the question South Carolinians should ask themselves is: Has this arrangement encouraged abuse or corruption?
The evidence is not encouraging. For example:
The president pro tempore has failed to disclose millions in government contracts and subcontracts.
He does not disclose income made off numerous Florence-area properties, despite the fact that he has enormous powers over the placement and funding of state roads.
He has used tens of thousands in campaign money for gifts, including meals and Christmas gifts for unnamed constituents.
The president pro tempore’s business received $1.8 million in contracts as a result of a federal program designed to aid African-American- and female-owned businesses. (The “disadvantaged” status was obtained as a result of the company hiring a female president.)
The State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, over which Leatherman wields enormous power (see above), has sent an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of payments to his home constituency, Florence, where his business is also located.
What’s to be done?
The proposition that unaccountable power leads to abuse is a familiar one. The case of Sen. Hugh Leatherman – Senate president pro tempore, Senate Finance chairman, chairman of the Joint Bond Review Committee, member of countless state boards – would seem to bear it out.
The problem, however, isn’t Sen. Leatherman. The problem is the power he’s been able to accrue – power accorded to him by his fellow lawmakers and, by extension, the public.
To address that will take something other than an election. In the short term, senators can replace Leatherman with another member at the next opportunity – a member who doesn’t already hold immense and multilayered powers over state government. That opportunity won’t come till next session, and in the meantime citizens should ask their senators if they’re satisfied with the current arrangement and if they plan to perpetuate it next year.
In the long term, it will take a sustained effort to remove statewide executive powers from the lawmakers and place them with the governor. Read more about reforms that would accomplish that goal here.