Roads Debate: Legislature Wants Power, Not Accountability

February 18, 2016

Inside Insight

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Lawmakers love to worry about a largely powerless governor getting ‘too much power’

Today the South Carolina Senate will continue the debate over road funding. Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort) is blocking the bill currently before the chamber, H.3579. That legislation would raise the gas tax and a host of fees, allegedly for the purpose of road maintenance and repair; and restructure the Department of Transportation, allegedly for the purpose of greater accountability.

Whether the tax and fee increases would do anything more than punish taxpayers without resulting in better roads, and whether the legislation’s restructuring component would do anything more than make the entire system murkier and more unaccountable, we will leave to readers to decide.

The debate on Wednesday did, however, raise a number of important questions, not the least of which was brought up by, among others, Sen. Thomas McElveen.

McElveen asked whether the restructuring reform Sen. Davis prefers – eliminating the entire DOT commission and placing the department squarely under the governor – would not risk granting one officeholder too much power.

Now, it’s always remarkable to us when lawmakers in a state dominated by legislative power express heartfelt concerns that this or that policy would “give too much power to the governor.” The General Assembly runs South Carolina through a variety of boards and commissions, and over time has arrogated one properly executive prerogative after another.

In any case, though, it would be a lot easier to buy Sen. McElveen’s argument if the legislature were willing to take on the accountability that ought to accompany various forms of power. But the executive powers belonging wholly or partly to the legislature virtually never come with any accountability to voters.

For instance, lawmakers have preponderant influence over the issuance of bonds, over education policy, over energy policy, over the state’s environmental and health agencies (DHHS and DNR), and of course over transportation policy. These are executive functions, and if they were under the governor, the governor would have to answer to taxpayers to ensure that these areas of government service functioned properly. If they did not function properly, taxpayers – voters – would know who to blame.

But the legislature doesn’t run these functions of government in any way citizens can evaluate. These areas of government are run by boards and commissions, the great majority of whose members are appointed by lawmakers. Very few citizens even know what these boards and commissions are, or who sits on them.

Thus although legislative leaders control the Department of Transportation – remember, lawmakers screen and appoint almost all the members of the DOT commission and the Infrastructure Bank board – no single lawmaker or legislative leader will ever bear the blame for incompetence or cronyism or malfeasance at the Department of Transportation or the Infrastructure Bank.

So Sen. McElveen raises a significant question. Would genuine restructuring of the DOT place a lot of power in the hands of one officeholder? In a sense, yes. But it would also place accountability at that officeholder’s doorstep. As it is now, power over transportation policy rests firmly in the hands of lawmakers and especially legislative leaders – while accountability for these services rests … nowhere.

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