Legal Corruption and Your Transportation Money
By Ashley Landess
A year ago, I stood with the leaders of quite a few diverse groups to talk about South Carolina’s unique “legal corruption.” That was the real kick-off to a substantive ethics reform debate – before then, politicians were putting their version of reform out, and it was (unsurprisingly) weak.
S.C. government is mostly controlled by legislative leaders who aren’t accountable statewide. That statement alone doesn’t seem to alarm citizens as much as it should, so I’ll say it another way: You have almost no ability to control your government. Furthermore, many of our “leaders” are personally benefiting from passing laws that allow them to promote their own interests over yours.
One of the best examples of our dangerously corrupt government is transportation funding. South Carolina’s roads need repairing. Just ask anyone from the 36 counties that got zero transportation money from the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank. More than $4 billion in public funds were appropriated from 1997-2012 for road projects, according to research by the Coastal Conservation League. That money went to only 10 of our 46 counties, two of which got more than $1 billion each, while two more got between $250 million and $1 billion.
Basically, four counties got most of the $4 billion in transportation funding, much of which is borrowed money that will be repaid (one way or another) by taxpayers. Now for the really scary part (bear with me on this, folks – it’s important!): The S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank is controlled by a board (not by the governor for whom we all get to vote), and a majority of the seven-member board is appointed by the House speaker and the Senate president pro tempore (two members are picked by the governor; one other is an ex-officio member who is the DOT commission chairman). The House speaker, Bobby Harrell, is from Charleston, and so is Glenn McConnell, who was the Senate president pro tempore until he became lieutenant governor last year.
By now you know the punch line to my story: One of the two counties that received more than $1 billion was Charleston. Another was Horry, a neighboring county to Florence, which is one of the two counties that received $250 million to $1 billion.
And now for more fun facts about our insanely structured government: One of the Infrastructure Bank board members appointed by McConnell is none other than Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman of Florence (who still serves on the board). That’s the same Hugh Leatherman who is the former president and a current owner of a concrete company that has received more than $30 million in state funding over the past 20 years, as The Nerve reported in April – and who controls the budget process in the Senate and who serves on the state Budget and Control Board, which plays a key role in managing state government (including awarding large contracts).
In a republic, legislators don’t get to spend the money they appropriate. But South Carolina’s government isn’t a republic, and separation of powers seems to only apply when legislative leaders – who also appoint our judges – want it to. The S.C. Constitution says, “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.” It isn’t clear how any legislator is allowed to serve on boards that run state government, but surely the situation presented by Sen. Leatherman, who chairs the Senate’s budget committee while also serving on the Budget and Control Board that technically runs state government, is one the constitutional ban on dual-office holding was designed to prevent.
The result of this messed-up system is that if you live in one of the 36 counties that has received no money from a state-run bank (and that’s a bad idea no matter who controls it), and you believe your roads are in bad shape, there isn’t much you can do about it.
The laws that govern the structure of this state need changing badly. We’ll never attract business to our state (at least, not without massive corporate welfare packages) while our infrastructure is ruled by such a corrupt process, much less will we improve our quality of life with billions of dollars in debt incurred by a few legislators for whom most of us can’t vote.
We can change all of this. We can become the freest state in America with the most opportunity to prosper. But not until we take charge of the root cause of the deepest problem in any government throughout history – we do not have an American republic governing our state. That core reality has robbed us of our freedom in just about every way possible. It’s time to fix it, and abolishing the Infrastructure Bank and allowing the governor complete control over transportation spending (after it has been appropriated by legislators in a fully open budget process) is as good a place to start as any.