MY LAST NERVE: What Was the Adjutant General Vote Really About?

November 7, 2014

Inside Insight

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adjunct general voteHOW LAWMAKERS PULLED A FAST ONE
ON THE ADJUTANT BALLOT MEASURE

On Tuesday, 56 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment that would allow the governor to appoint the adjutant general – changing the current practice of electing that officeholder statewide. South Carolina is the only state in the nation in which the head of the state’s military is elected. Given that the governor, not the adjutant general, is the commander-in-chief, it’s plain that the governor should appoint someone to hold that office.

So it was a good move, right?

Right. Well, mostly . . .

While the approval of this ballot question strengthens the executive branch by cutting the absurdly high number of constitutional officers, the import of the law is a little more complicated. The General Assembly still has to ratify the measure and to define “the term, duties, compensation, and qualifications for office, the procedures by which the appointment is made, and the procedures by which the adjutant general may be removed from office.”

The ballot measure itself specifies that the term will not be coterminous with that of the governor – a subtle power move by the legislature to limit the governor’s authority.

Let me explain what I mean by that. By making the adjutant general’s term non-coterminous and possibly longer than the governor’s – say, by making it six years instead of four, like the governor’s – the legislature would in effect make the office quasi-independent of the governor. The adjutant general wouldn’t be one governor’s appointee, wouldn’t necessarily need to make policy decisions that reflect the governor’s views, and he would have to rely more heavily on the legislature for his agency’s budget.

So although the governor will appoint the adjutant general, that office won’t exactly be “under” the governor.

These last two elections have shown there is widespread public support for strengthening the state’s chief executive. In 2012, voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing the governor and lieutenant governor to run on the same ticket, similar to the presidential ticket. What that means, in essence, is that the liutenant governor won’t be some powerless but autonomous politician constantly preparing to run for governor, but will instead be an agent of the executive. (Both this amendment and the one voters approved earlier this week will not take effect until 2018.)

In both cases, voters stated an overwhelming preference not to have to elect all these people.

Understandably so. It’s simply not realistic to expect South Carolinians – or citizens of any other state – to come up with informed opinions about who the lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, attorney general, comptroller general, state education superintendent, agriculture commissioner, and adjutant general should be. Very few people in the state know what an adjutant general or a comptroller general is supposed to do, or why in the world we have an Agriculture Department that needs a commissioner. Why make us all vote for these positions?

Imagine if, in the next presidential election, you had to vote for the vice president, the attorney general, the secretary of agriculture, the secretary of state, the education secretary, and the head of the Office of Management and Budget. Unless you’re one of a very small number of political junkies and policy wonks, you’d have no clue who to vote for.

Why does South Carolina do it this way? Because the framers of the 1890 constitution wanted a weak governor, and today’s legislators want to keep it that way. It allows the legislature, and especially a few legislative leaders, to wield vast power with little or no accountability.

The change to make the adjutant general’s office appointed is a step in the right direction, for sure. But the next time lawmakers propose putting a constitutional officer under the governor, let’s make sure they’re not pulling a fast one.

Jamie Murguia is director of research at the S.C. Policy Council, The Nerve‘s parent organization.