MY LAST NERVE: How our “Legislative State” Has Given us Bad Roads

July 24, 2015

Inside Insight

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THIS ISN’T HOW IT’S SUPPOSED TO WORK

This year’s debate to raise taxes was masqueraded as a debate to fix our roads. For the first few months of the “debate,” the factual claims of lawmakers and special interests supportive of a tax increase went largely unchallenged.

The Nerve revealed that one study being touted by these individuals due to its support of a tax hike was done by a company that had received more than $13 million in state payments for transportation-related projects. A review of another study by the South Carolina Policy Council (The Nerve’s parent organization) found that one of the key figures in the report (that 30 percent or more of the gas tax was paid for by out-of-state motorists) lacked documentation or supporting evidence. Further investigation and questioning from constituents revealed that lawmakers had no real plan to fix our roads at all: the “plan,” whatever it was, was up to the Department of Transportation (DOT) Commission.

But the DOT Commission isn’t some independent body: it’s controlled by legislative leaders. Sure, the governor has an appointment to the Commission, but lawmakers have the ultimate say. The Joint Transportation Review Committee (JTRC) is responsible for determining who can even be considered as a commissioner, and that body is comprised entirely of lawmakers or their appointees.

Not only do they control this end of decision-making; they also control the other transportation decision-making body – the State Transportation Infrastructure bank (STIB). The argument, therefore, that lawmakers can’t tell DOT how to spend the money – that all they can do is raise more revenue – seems plausible at a superficial level, but is in fact false.

We’ve all heard the saying, With great power comes great responsibility. I don’t know where it comes from – I’ve seen it attributed to Churchill, Napoleon, and the movie Spiderman. Whoever said it, South Carolina’s legislative leaders operate under the opposite principle. They have extensive and largely unchecked power, but very little accountability for the way that power is exercised. Thus the state of our roads.

This is what it means to have a “legislative state.” The term “legislative state” – meaning a state dominated by its legislature – gets thrown around a lot, as if it’s one legitimate model of representative democracy among other legitimate models. It’s not legitimate. It means a few people exercise vast powers over all three branches of government, and a comparatively tiny minority of citizens can even vote for them.

On transportation, having a “legislative state” means decisions get made based on who can get what for their district. In practice, that means a few counties get the lion’s share of road money, and the rest make due with inadequate funding and bad roads.

What’s lacking is a statewide approach that can only be provided by a statewide-elected official – the governor. We cannot be reasonably asked to trust that sending more money to the same system of non-accountability and poor results will somehow produce a better road system. If we’re going to improve our deteriorating road system, our legislative leaders must relinquish the power they now have through a complicated web of board and commission appointments, and give that power – and the responsibility that goes with it – to the one official who can be held directly accountable to the people.

This is not about making Gov. Nikki Haley more powerful. If she or some other governor mismanages or misallocates road money, that governor should be made to answer by the voters. Under the present system, by contrast, no one answers for mismanagement and misallocation.

Consider this year’s road funding debate. Legislative power dominates the whole issue of road funding and decision-making in transportation policy, but rather than take accountability for the failure of this system, most lawmakers expect the public to fork over more money to them for “better,” “safer” roads with no plan to change the process that allowed our roads to get to this point in the first place. Personality conflicts between the legislature and this governor, the previous, or the next, are not a reason to forego reform, and they certainly are not a reason for the legislature to refuse to relinquish the stronghold they have on executive branch power and responsibility.

Jamie Murguia is Director of Research at the S.C. Policy Council