For years I have criticized Gov. Mark Sanford as a man devoid of ideas and principles. In the weeks since his high-profile implosion, I have been dancing on his political grave.
But there is one thing Sanford and I agreed on completely: State government is in need of a massive overhaul, and it could not come a decade too early.
The fact is that South Carolina is organized around an 1895 constitution created by a ruthless and corrupt politician — Benjamin Ryan Tillman — for the purpose of maintaining a weak chief executive, keeping legislative power centered in the rural areas, and disenfranchising blacks from voting and holding public office.
Much of the racial injustice built into our state constitution has been remedied by federal law and court decisions. The legislative imbalance of power between rural and urban counties was addressed in the 1960s with federal court-ordered legislative reapportionment. One of the last great readjustments needed to bring state government into the 21st century would be to consolidate the nine statewide executive offices, such as attorney general, treasurer, commissioner of education, and adjutant general, into a unified cabinet appointed by and responsible to the governor. As it stands, all of these positions are elective and may be filled by politicians with their own agendas, philosophies, and party affiliation. Even the lieutenant governor is elected separately, and several times in recent decades he has not been of the governor’s party.
It’s a crazy way to run a state, and Mark Sanford wanted to fix it. His goal was to bring all of these elective offices — and the myriad departments and agencies — directly under the governor’s command and control, making South Carolina government more unified, more effective, and more like most modern state and national governments.
Who could be against that? The General Assembly, that’s who! For the governor to consolidate such power in his office, legislators would have to surrender some of the power and privilege of their institution. And South Carolina politics does not breed that kind of statesmanship.
We got a recent look at just how corrupt and irresponsible our government is, thanks to an excellent series of stories by Sammy Fretwell of The State newspaper in Columbia. Fretwell documented at least 23 occasions during a six-month period last year in which state lawmakers contacted the Department of Health and Environmental Control on behalf of constituents and supporters, leaning on the agency to reconsider various policies or judgments.
To the uninitiated, DHEC is the fifth-largest department in state government, responsible for making and enforcing a vast array of environmental policy, including regulation of coastal development. Inevitably, the agency gets in the way of some ambitious and heedless people. In such times it’s good to have friends in high places, and our lawmakers are happy to put in a word for wealthy and powerful friends.
Not only is this bad public policy. It is bad for the democratic process and participation in public affairs. Why should people vote or write letters to their legislators or march around the Statehouse with banners and bullhorns when they know the fix is in? What these legislators have been doing with DHEC confirms the old and cynical stereotypes of state government: that it exists to serve wealth and power — all else be damned.
One of the legislators cited in Fretwell’s July 6 story was none other than Charleston’s own Sen. Robert Ford, who reportedly went to bat for a developer trying to expedite the permits for a downtown development. In other instances, legislators were found influencing DHEC to drop a criminal investigation into asbestos dumping and leaning on the agency to reverse itself to allow dredging of a sensitive coastal wetland in Georgetown County.
There is little DHEC personnel can do to protect themselves from overreaching legislators. “You get a powerful state senator … and you are a bureaucrat at DHEC; you are going to be very reluctant to cross swords with that guy,” said John Crangle, head of the S.C. office of Common Cause. “He has a lot of ways he can make your life miserable, and a lot of ways he can make your life easier.”
The way to protect DHEC and other agencies from such influence is to put them into the governor’s cabinet. That was Mark Sanford’s one good idea, and now it’s wrecked, along with his career and his marriage.
I don’t give a damn about Gov. Sanford’s career or his personal life, but state government reform was important. It was desperately needed in this backward, little feudal state. Achieving it would have been his greatest legacy, and, like everything else, it was sacrificed on the altar of his arrogance and libido.