MY LAST NERVE: Outrageous Story, But Who’s Responsible?

September 25, 2015

Inside Insight

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closed meetingTRANSPORTATION OFFICIALS ARE HAVING SECRET MEETINGS ABOUT MAJOR PROJECTS. AND WHO’S GONNA STOP THEM?

A recent Buzz report in The State highlighted yet another reason lawmakers have to restructure the Department of Transportation (DOT) before any additional funds for infrastructure should be allocated to it.

The report also suggests – unfortunately – why that reform is unlikely to happen without a major shift in attitudes among lawmakers.

It seems that DOT Commissioner Mike Wooten requested a closed-door meeting with the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce to discuss the results of a study on I-73, a future interstate that would connect Myrtle Beach to the state’s interstate system. The study showed that putting a toll on the road would only generate $32.7 million by 2050. That’s compared to the total $2.4 billion cost. With the toll road set to generate only 1.3 percent of the state’s cost of constructing the new interstate, the state will have to come up with quit a lot more.

Since lawmakers spent most of the 2015 legislative session trying to figure out how to raise the gas tax in order to cover a deficit in funding for roads we (supposedly) already have, it would seem – at least on the face of it – ill-advised for the state to move forward with the construction of a major new interstate. Presumably that was the reason for the confidential – i.e. secret – meeting. But we’ll never know, since it was, well, secret.

Here’s the important question: Whom should taxpayers consider responsible? Who should citizens contact to express concern about a secret meetings between transportation policymakers and local Chamber bigwigs about a publicly funded study?

The DOT is technically a cabinet agency and should therefore be accountable to the governor. But we know it isn’t, because it’s not really a cabinet agency. The governor has little control over the DOT Commission aside from one appointment to the eight-member board.

So, again: Who’s responsible? Whom do we complain to about this whole sketchy business? You can complain to the Commissioners – assuming you can figure out how to get in touch with them – but they are not elected officials; they have no incentive to listen. Aside from one commissioner appointed by the governor, the seven other members of the Commission are appointed by the legislative delegations. And those delegation members can only choose from a list of candidates screened and approved by the Joint Transportation Review Committee (JTRC), a body consisting of legislative leaders and their appointees. The House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem directly control half the appointments to the board – the JTRC – that has the final say on who can serve on the DOT Commission. The JTRC even gets to approve the governor’s one appointment to the Commission – so not even the governor’s appointment is really the governor’s appointment.

So, sure, you could contact members of the JTRC and complaint about secret meetings. But chances are slim that your senator or representative actually sits on the JTRC, so you’ll just be complaining to someone you can’t vote for or against, and indeed someone you’ve probably never heard of – someone who, again, has no incentive to listen.

In short, if citizens have concerns about a secret meeting on a publicly funded study that shows the cost of a new interstate far exceeds revenue expectations, the only discernible lines of accountability lead to one House member from Darlington (the House Speaker) and one senator from Florence (the President Pro Tem). If you don’t happen to be from either of those counties, too bad.

How’s that for accountability? And what do you think about dumping more money – in the form of a gas tax increase – into a system as convoluted, secretive, and unaccountable as this one?

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