Gregory: Restructure now to save our state

Will the return of the General Assembly for the second half of the legislative session bring bold action tailored to our semi-desperate times, or small-time skirmishes over parochial matters? History favors the latter, but the times demand the former.

Our state faces several critical issues, but one towers over the rest because it affects the solutions to all the others. For any organization to be effective, it must be well organized. There must be clear lines of authority and accountability. This we do not have in our state government. What we have, in the words of S.C. historian Walter Edgar, is a “governmental jungle.”

This jungle took root with the adoption of the Constitution of 1895. Its central purpose was to dilute the power of the executive branch as a preemptive strike against the possible election of a black governor in a post-Reconstruction government. Like most actions with ill intentions, the negative consequences have compounded over the years.

Poorly designed even for agrarian times, our chaotic government structure is a disaster in the information age. Like college football’s BCS Championship, it is mainly defended by those with a self-interest in it. This was evidenced by the recent Senate hearings over who should govern DHEC, which saw pretty much everyone contradicting their professed beliefs in defense of the status quo.

Republican legislators always argue that “government should be run more like a business,” yet any business with the lack of accountability inherent in South Carolina’s government would quickly fail. Democratic legislators proclaim a need for more diversity among the state’s leadership; a true Cabinet system of government would ensure this, but the current system almost guarantees nine white men in the state’s constitutional offices.

Republicans decry the appointment of numerous “czars” to positions in the Obama administration; at least the czars report to the president. In South Carolina, appointments are made to powerful positions by a variety of methods, but those appointed are essentially accountable to no one until their terms are up. That is fine for judges, but not for heads of state agencies such as the Employment Security Commission. Agency directors should be appointed by the governor, not a legislative body, or board of volunteer laypeople.

Similarly, the state’s highest elected official should appoint leaders to oversee K-12 education, the National Guard and agriculture. After all, fewer than 2 percent of South Carolinians are farmers. How informed can the other 98 percent of us be on a down-ballot election for the commissioner of agriculture?

Opponents of restructuring argue that agencies must not be directly accountable to the governor, else political influence might be unjustly wielded. For what do we elect a governor, if not to carry out his agenda?

The unspoken truth is that anti-restructuring legislators want to retain power to wield influence in what should be executive branch matters. Considering where our state ranks today, how has that worked out for us? Not too well in a lot of areas, but especially education, where our governors and superintendents of education are often at odds. If we have an education “Corridor of Shame,” then who is to blame? Is it the governor, superintendent of education, General Assembly, state Board of Education or the myriad of administratively duplicative school districts that occupy the area?

Where there is no visibility, there can be no accountability. The governor is visible and should be accountable, but must have the authority to govern. For South Carolina to keep pace in today’s hyper-competitive world, the executive branch must be placed on equal footing with the legislative branch. This means granting the governor the power to appoint constitutional officers and name directors to run agencies such as the Department of Transportation.

November 4, 2010, must bring South Carolina a strong executive branch filled by a strong governor. We need a leader with Dick Riley’s passion for big ideas and Carroll Campbell’s persuasive powers. Yet, even if this person exists among the current candidates, the new governor needs more – the power to say “you’re hired” and “you’re fired” rather than only “please” and “thank you.”

A simple first step would be for legislators to allow the voters the option of changing the constitution to grant the governor authority to appoint constitutional officers. If there is an effective argument as to why South Carolina’s government structure should not mirror that of most every state that ranks ahead of us, let its proponents make it. Show us how our schools, roads, port and Employment Security Commission exceed all others. Otherwise, let the people vote to vest our executive branch with the powers granted to virtually every other governor.

One accountable person moving with purpose has to be more effective than 179 moving in opposite directions. Isn’t it time we gave that person a chance?

Source: The State

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