Leatherman’s New Terminal and S.C.’s Secret Budget

October 23, 2015

Inside Insight

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Leatherman Honors

Why did the state-run Ports Authority bestow this honor on the very-much-alive Finance Chairman? Don’t expect to find out.

In South Carolina, almost nothing is what it seems when it comes to politicians and state government. A bill with a title including “consumer protection” turns out to be an attempt by some House members to opt in to Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion (the Policy Council caught that one – it didn’t go anywhere). A hearing on “ethics reform” is really an attempt to punish critics of powerful lawmakers. And the “Ethics Act” virtually guarantees that powerful politicians are protected from any consequences of corruption.

So forgive our cynicism when powerful Senate President Pro Tempore and Finance Committee chairman tweeted that he was “humbled” by the State Ports Authority Board’s decision to name the new terminal for him. I’m not questioning his humility – that’s not our job – but I am curious about the motives of the Ports Authority.

It’s bad enough that lawmakers name state structures for their very-much-alive colleagues. There’s always a risk that’ll turn out badly – no politician is beyond making a mistake bad enough to warrant a hasty late-night scraping of a name from a building. Leatherman’s hometown of Florence has, of course, posted his name all over town, and the effect can be pretty creepy for visitors (see the photos above).

But for a state agency to do it raises at least one question: why name a terminal after a state senator?

Senator Leatherman is not a statewide official. Despite the power he and other legislative leaders have taken (and until recently, with impunity) – they control almost every major function of state government – they are not elected statewide but rather by a small percentage of citizens to serve as their representative in the General Assembly. And for most leadership posts they are only accountable to their colleagues.

But this is South Carolina, where the Senate Finance Chairman is among the state’s few powerful and unaccountable “rulers.” In addition, Senator Leatherman is also the Senate President Pro Tempore and you see why a state agency would be eager to please. Leatherman and the House Speaker hold almost all the cards. Indeed, Leatherman has appointments to multiple boards and commissions (he even sits on quite a few of them himself), including every state entity that touches transportation – all on top of his control over the state budget.

The State Ports Authority is yet another example of a state agency that shouldn’t exist. There is no reason for the state to be in the business of managing a port system, and almost all other states lease the land and management to private companies. But the legislature refuses to privatize the port. Instead, the SPA has a full-time publicly funded lobbyist on staff, has refused to comply with FOIA requests, and has a board that is almost untouchable – members are appointed by the governor but the legislature has made sure they can’t be removed.

This is no time for the public to have to worry about the State House favor factory. All available surplus/contingency funds should go to disaster relief. As you’ll see shortly from an analysis by the Policy Council’s research team on the disaster relief process, the state will be on the hook for at least 25 percent of most of the bill for federal aid. The less we ask from DC, the less we will owe DC.

Unfortunately, the public has almost no insight into the state budget. That’s shouldn’t be true – there are two laws on the books that should protect the public from secrecy in the state budget. The first is a law from the 1990s requiring the governor to submit a detailed state budget, which the House and Senate budget committees are required to debate in an open, joint hearing (as best we can tell, that law has never been followed). The second law comes from a Policy Council recommendation to require all state agencies to fully disclose federal funds spent, along with all mandates and the corresponding state cost. That law was introduced by Senator Tom Davis and passed in 2011.

Unfortunately, those laws are ignored and never enforced. That has to change. It’s time for lawmakers to follow the law.

It’s ridiculous that it’s an option to name a structure after a politician who is still in office, and outrageous that doing so is a lobbying strategy for a state agency. But it’s even worse that: since current laws aren’t followed or enforced, the public has no way of knowing whether there was an “ask” attached to the honor bestowed by a state agency on the state’s most powerful senator. There might well be none, but unless something changes there is no way for us to know anything about the state budget for sure.

At a time like this, that ought to make us angry.

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