Lawmakers want to even the playing field between themselves and the people
By HANNAH HILL
“…When we have to go back to the ratepayers and explain what we’ve done and things like that, you know the first thing they’re gonna say is ‘Well, why’s it three/two? Why can’t we be at the same table?’” – Rep. Nathan Ballantine, referring to the legislator/citizen ratio comprising the Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC).
This quote is from Monday’s meeting of the House Utility Ratepayer Protection Committee, during a discussion about restructuring the PURC.
Currently, the PURC – which oversees and/or influences every area of the energy industry, including the failed nuclear construction project – is comprised of six lawmakers and four private citizens. The proposal under discussion was to change the lawmaker/citizen ratio to an even split.
Committee Chairman Peter McCoy put it beautifully: “…I think you’re right on. I don’t see anything wrong with doing a direct split…I think having that fifty-fifty split – I think the optics of it are nice and I like the way that it looks and sounds.”
And Rep. Ballantine added: “I don’t care who appoints them, really. I just – my feel for the ratepayers back home is we need to level the playing field…I think that’s the least we can do back home.”
Well, it’s certainly the very least they can do. But let’s leave aside the question of whether or not adding non-legislative members to the PURC constitutes true reform (hint: it doesn’t).
The fact of the matter is that lawmakers don’t get to give their constituents “a seat at the table”: Lawmakers are their constituents’ seat at the table. That’s the point of representative government.
If the purpose of this proposal was to increase the number of industry experts on the PURC, that would be one thing. It would not constitute true reform, but it would be an understandable suggestion. But that wasn’t the case: This IS their proposed reform and, based on their discussion, the intent is solely to address the allocation of power.
It’s disturbing that a lawmaker wants to “even the playing field” between lawmakers and citizens – as if they were on opposing teams – and thinks he is doing everyone a favor.
Unfortunately, this mindset is typical of the General Assembly. While they all give lip-service to the fact that they’re in Columbia to do the will of their constituents, in reality they function more like benevolent dictators (or not-so-benevolent, in some cases), kindly telling citizens what to accept from government.
We see this mindset when citizens demand government restructuring and the answer is to rebrand the Budget and Control Board and call it change. Or when citizens demand Department of Transportation reform, and they simply tweak the existing system. Or when citizens demand that lawmakers disclose their income sources and they find a way to do it while protecting their financial conflicts of interest.
In South Carolina we have a legislature that routinely ignores the laws and even the state constitution, that runs the entire government and refers to the “legislative state” as if that were a legitimate form of government rather than a euphemism for “no balance of power.”
And therein lies the root of the problem. Government of, by and for the people is not compatible with a top-down approach. Representative government is one where lawmakers are public servants.
When legislators sit down to discuss solutions for the energy crisis, they should start by remembering they are there to execute the will the people who elected them.
They don’t just give us “a seat at the table.” Even if it is good for optics.