What the Senate Did on Roads – and Why

March 11, 2016

Inside Insight

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By ASHLEY LANDESS

Senate ‘compromise’ was lawmakers telling citizens what citizens wanted.

It’s bad enough to see our best shot at reforming the transportation system go down in flames last week. It’s even worse to hear all the celebrating and self-congratulating by politicians for “reforming” the state’s roads system.

They did no such thing. While it’s a good sign that citizens were able to force senators to remove a massive tax hike (first proposed by Governor Haley and then passed by the House), what the senate ultimately passed leaves the corrupt transportation system largely intact. That means that actual repairs to our roads are unlikely because the same officials will be just as unaccountable to the public as they’ve always been, and just as able to profit personally from the system.

Senators knew what real reform would look like. It’s not complicated. The Department of Transportation should be run by a Secretary accountable to the governor, not board accountable to legislative leaders. The State Infrastructure Bank, a debacle controlled by a few legislative leaders that has borrowed billions of dollars and funneled them into 10 counties, should be completely eliminated. It serves no purpose but to indebt citizens further and funnel money into legislative leaders’ pet projects. And full transparency for the entire system is a given for real accountability – citizens deserve to have input into the priorities, see where the money goes and which contractors have ties to the DOT, not to mention which commissioners are profiting (along with lawmakers).

In other words, basic separation of powers and transparency. Without that, there’s no incentive for the unaccountable lawmakers who really control the system to do anything different. Citizens get that, but their lawmakers and the governor clearly don’t. As a result, the plan passed by the senate this week was nothing more than smoke and mirrors pretending to be reform. The DOT Commission stayed intact and so did the SIB. And there was zero transparency.

Senators claim their “fix” – allowing the governor to appoint the DOT Commission – was the same as having one director accountable to the governor. It’s not. An eight-person board in charge of all decisions never made sense, regardless of who appoints it, but it doesn’t appear that the governor could remove the board at will, thus rendering him/her powerless to force a board to do anything.

The Senate plan doesn’t touch the SIB, except to say its members have to get the DOT Commission’s approval before they transfer dollars to a project. And there is no transparency.

It didn’t have to be this way. Had the senators who originally fought for real reform and against the tax not agreed to stop their filibuster and take the deal, it looked as though they might be forced to either kill the plan altogether or at least vote on the record.

Instead, they negotiated the plan that doesn’t practically change anything. More smoke and mirrors. At one point, senators apparently signed a pledge not to change the amendment they negotiated behind closed doors. And they wouldn’t, at least not to make it better. But apparently that promise dissolved when they agreed to cave and weaken the proposal even more by limiting the approval the SIB would need from DOT. So much for the signed pledge.

And that’s the frustrating part – watching politicians work together to preserve a corrupt system that citizens have worked together to tear down. This battle isn’t partisan and it’s not citizens hammering out differences among themselves through their representatives. This is a fight between the people and their politicians for control of their government, a battle over basic separation of powers and transparency that shouldn’t happen in this country at all, much less every year in our state.

It’s time to change that dynamic. It’s time to insist on full reform, without compromise. That’s the only kind that’s going to change anything, and if we settle for less that’s what we’ll continue to get.

Ashley Landess is president of the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization.