By PHILLIP CEASE
Leatherman and White get it done
The term “legislative state” gets thrown around a lot by people trying to describe the power structure for South Carolina’s government. It’s supposed to make the state’s gross imbalance of power seem like a reasonable alternative – a “legislative state,” as opposed to an “executive state,” sounds like a legitimate thing.
Another problem with the term, however, is that it implies the entire legislature runs the state. In fact, a better argument can be made that a small group of legislative leaders run it. Consider the recent controversy over the expansion of Coastal Carolina’s stadium.
First, some context. Coastal Carolina University decided to move from the Big South to the Sun Belt Conference. In order to make this switch, university officials needed to increase the size of the school’s stadium and wanted to issue bonds to cover the construction cost.
The Commission on Higher Education (CHE) first had to approve the bond request, but the agency denied it – four times – citing insufficient funding to cover the bond debt and a board member’s own experience with the unforeseen costs of switching conferences. Normally that would be the end of the story. But thanks to that small group of powerful legislators in Columbia, Coastal Carolina will get its stadium expansion.
At the very end of the budget process, legislators slipped in two provisos (laws that expire at the end of the fiscal year) that allowed Coastal Carolina to circumvent the CHE’s decision. The provisos were sponsored by Ways and Means Chairman Brian White (R-Anderson). In the Conference Committee for the budget, Senate Finance chairman Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence) agreed to the House provisos. They were included in the final budget.
(Why Leatherman and White went out of their way to assist Coastal Carolina in this way is unclear – the school is not located in either lawmaker’s district. It’s worth noting that CCU has spent $15,000 on lobbying in 2016.)
Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed the provisos, noting in her veto message that Coastal Carolina “deployed an aggressive lobbying effort to bypass CHE’s statutory responsibility to review and consider higher education capital projects, resulting in this proviso.” She went on: “The project, primarily funded by tuition-backed debt, nearly doubled in cost since its original proposal last fall.”
The governor’s vetoes were overwhelmingly overridden in the House. In the Senate, one proviso was sustained – meaning the Senate agreed with the governor’s veto. But ten minutes later, Senate leaders, evidently unhappy with the result, moved to reconsider – a parliamentary maneuver allowing the chamber to take up a veto again even though members already sustained it. Both White and Leatherman voted to override the vetoes in their respective chambers.
The next step for Coastal Carolina was to go before the Joint Bond Review Committee (JBRC), a body made up entirely of legislators. The chairman and vice chairman of the JBRC are none other than Sen. Leatherman and Rep. White, respectively. The committee approved the bond proposal.
After it was approved by the JBRC, the State Fiscal Accountability Authority (SFAA) voted this week 3 to 2 to allow the project to move forward. Leatherman and White are on that five-member board, too; they accounted for two of the three “aye” votes.
In the end, White and Leatherman voted on the proposal no fewer than seven times. Four for White and three for Leatherman – and this doesn’t include White’s own amendment that introduced the two provisos.
The governor, meanwhile – who, unlike White and Leatherman, is elected by the entire state, not merely by a single legislative district – only got to act on the measure twice: first with a veto, second with a vote on the SFAA. In both cases, she was outgunned by two legislative leaders.
Maybe the best term isn’t “legislative state” after all. Maybe we should refer to South Carolina an “oligarchic state.”
Consider Leatherman. The Florence lawmaker has at least 46 boards and commission seats he either serves on or can appoint to. On some boards he appoints more than one member – for example the powerful Judicial Merit Selection Committee, which nominates judicial candidates to the legislature for election.
A few years ago when the legislature passed and the governor signed a government restructuring bill that supposedly “abolished” the Budget and Control Board, lawmakers and other politicos cheered the “historic” victory for accountability. Judging by the CCU stadium controversy, however, the end results of the new restructuring law were (a) that the Budget and Control Board has a new name – it’s the SFAA now – and (b) that the oligarchy remains firmly in place.
But if you’re a small university wanting to fund a stadium expansion, an oligarchy is just what you may need.
Phillip Cease is director of research at the South Carolina Policy Council