MY LAST NERVE: Lawmakers Asking the Public What to Do with New Powers

September 4, 2015

Inside Insight

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state house front

LEGISLATORS TO PUBLIC: WAIT, WHAT’S
THIS COMMITTEE FOR AGAIN?

A House oversight committee is seeking public input on several agencies under review, including the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB). It’s hard to know if members really want input or whether they just like the appearance of inclusion in their decision-making process. Whether they do or not, they’ve asked for it here.

Skepticism of this process is not without merit. In 2013 and 2014, the sessions during which the legislature fashioned the “historic” government restructuring bill, it was always pretty apparent that the vast majority of lawmakers didn’t actually want to accomplish the goal of government restructuring – namely to separate powers and create clear lines of accountability. The result, accordingly, was a merely renamed Budget and Control Board – it’s now called the State Fiscal Accountability Authority! – and a few insignificant admin functions (parking services, for instance) shuffled to the executive branch.

So: the more things changed, the more they stayed the same.

But in a desperate attempt not to lose substantive power to the executive branch, lawmakers actually duplicated authority they already had. They could already create state agencies and programs, they could already force agency heads and their staff to testify before legislative committees. (Indeed, senators have recently done precisely this with the Department of Social Services and the Department of Health and Environmental Control.)

Maybe they just forgot they could already do this. I don’t know. Anyhow, worried that they’d be giving even a smidgeon of power to the governor, the House created an “oversight committee” to monitor and manage state agencies – all state agencies, including the few the governor’s ostensibly controls.

Now that they created this committee, however, they don’t seem entirely sure what they’re supposed to do with them, or how they’re supposed to fulfill the duties of running them. The House oversight committee, for instance, lists its goals as follows: “oversight studies by your elected Representatives, the ability for the public to be involved in the process, identification of areas for improvement and recommendations for agencies under study, and a central source of information about agencies under study.”

Wow. Did the legislature really need to create a new committee just to get the public involved in studying agencies and collecting information about agencies they already have the power to review and programs they control through the appropriations process? Sounds like the legislature has bitten off more than it can chew and lawmakers need the public to help them figure out what in the world they’re supposed to be doing.

The good news for them is that while they were focused on retaining their power and pretending to reform government, citizens were paying close attention to how the legislature’s near total control over our state is negatively affecting our daily lives – including the condition of the state’s infrastructure. Good thing the Infrastructure Bank is one of the agencies the public can weigh in on through the survey. (It’s not even supposed to be an agency, incidentally – it’s a “bank” – but leave that aside.) The STIB exists solely to fund new projects, favors a few politically influential counties, and is effectively controlled by two legislators. Further, much of their projects are funded through the issuance of bonds – that’s debt – and the STIB’s total liabilities exceed $2 billion.

In theory, those are things our lawmakers and other elected officials should know already. In any case, the results of the survey should be made available to the public so that our lawmakers can’t continue claiming they’ve never heard the public express dissatisfaction policies that funnel hundreds of millions each year to the STIB and away from critical maintenance on our roads.

Jamie Murguia is Director of Research at the S.C. Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization.