By ASHLEY LANDESS
Shots fired. Fight ensues.
This week Sen. Tom Davis provided us with that rarest of things in a legislative session: a substantive filibuster. Usually lawmakers try to kill time, and so we might be treated to a reading of a child’s school essay or a recitation of The Cat in the Hat (which is better than most politicians’ speeches). But Sen. Davis has spent the week in the well fighting to keep his colleagues from passing a massive gas tax hike first proposed by Gov. Nikki Haley and since by both House and Senate.
Sen. Davis has done an admirable job talking about the structure of the transportation system, the rampant cronyism and the fact that lawmakers have plenty of money this year to apply to road repair without raising taxes.
Much of that discussion has been brewing outside the State House for well over year, as groups such as the South Carolina Policy Council, the Coastal Conservation League, Americans for Prosperity and Campaign for Liberty have worked together to expose the corrupt structure of the system – a system that, like the rest of state government, is controlled by a handful of legislative leaders elected by a small percentage of the state’s voters – and where the current dollars are being spent, of which there more than enough to make a dent in road repairs if lawmakers stop funneling it to special-interest projects and wasteful unnecessary construction that often benefits legislative leaders and transportation officials.
The public is becoming more educated on the need to tear down the concentration of power and secrecy lawmakers have created in state government, to their own benefit. And thanks to The Nerve, citizens also know more about the way lawmakers and powerful officials profit from the transportation system they control. But Sen. Davis started a scuffle that transportation officials clearly wanted to keep quiet.
Other than from Dana Beach of the Coastal Conservation League, who has been beating the drum against Interstate 73 (and other specific roads plans that range from absurd to suspicious), too little has been said about this billion-dollar boondoggle. What many of us learned this week is that federal funds previously earmarked for certain projects had been freed up to be spent on more-pressing needs by the state. Davis contends those funds are now free to be used on repair projects while, not surprisingly, DOT chairman Mike Wooten wants to keep those dollars for a highway we don’t need and shouldn’t build (that last part obviously my conclusion, not Mr. Wooten’s). Wooten is quoted as saying he’d hate to see that money earmarked from anything other than I-73 because “we went up there and worked hard for that money.”
Not to put a spin on Wooten’s quote that isn’t there, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume he meant that “they” went to DC to lobby (i.e., “worked hard) and therefore they (as in, the DOT and whomever else “worked” for that money for I-73) should be permitted to spend it on the project “they” “worked” for.
And so the DOT Chairman – who lives in Horry County where the highway would be built, and who also runs a firm that has received millions of dollars in contracts from local governments in the region – is fighting to maintain funding for a project he cares about while we’re told they can’t afford to repair the rest of the roads.
Sen. Davis is right to question those funds. Wooten and DOT don’t have the authority to simply reallocate dollars that are freed up, or at least they shouldn’t without legislative approval. But of course, it’s Sen. Hugh Leatherman who exerts the most direct power over the transportation system not only through his role as Senate Finance Chairman but through all the state boards and commissions he’s on. From the Joint Transportation Review Committee that nominates the DOT Commission to the State Infrastructure Bank, Leatherman serves on just about every board that touches transportation projects, and in direct conflict with the state Constitution which prohibits dual office-holding.
Yet another reason we need complete reform to the system. It’s time to take back control of this government, before we don’t have any ability left to do it.
Ashley Landess is president of the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve‘s parent organization.