Thomas: Strong Governor Might be ‘Tyrannical’

October 27, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveJan Williams
Citizen Reporter


As part of an effort to assess legislators’ views on the length of session, balance of power and roll call voting, citizen reporters from The Nerve are posing questions to lawmakers from around South Carolina. In the following, Citizen Reporter Jan Williams interviews Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville:

Q: South Carolina’s legislative session is the longest in the Southeast and the longest in the United States among part-time legislatures. Would you support shortening the legislative session to no more than 45 legislative days?

A: The South Carolina Legislative session is a 60-day session and the legislators serve part-time. I have favored shortening the session for some time, going back at least 15 years. We have experienced shortened legislative sessions in the past. One negative effect that we saw last year was that we could not get to important legislative issues on the calendar. Advocates of the shortened session need to be aware of this problem because the same people that advocate a shortened session will, no doubt, advocate other reform issues which we need time to get to.  However, in principal, I am favor of a shortened session to 45 days.

Q: Because so much power is concentrated in the legislative branch, the leadership is therefore powerful through appointments to 250-plus executive branch boards and commissions. The Speaker of the House and the Senate President Pro Tempore, alone, make more than 120 appointments to executive branch functions. Do you believe there is an equal balance of power among the legislative, executive and judicial branches of S.C. state government? How would you propose changing the current system?

A: Concerning the issue of appointment, three sub-questions are asked. The main question is “do you believe there is a balance of power between the three branches of government?” As I understand the (state) constitution, which was written in the late 1800s, the structure of state government was created to give the Legislature more authority than the executive. That has changed as of late, with more power being put in the hands of the governor and now, approximately a third of all the agencies are controlled directly by the governor, or at least indirectly, such as DDSN (Department of Disabilities and Special Needs). The appointment by the governor usually goes through the normal screening process with very little resistance and the governor, therefore, has broad appointment power with only marginal oversight by the Legislature.

As to a specific answer to the first question, the Legislature still, as a body, most likely has more authority, taken in its totality, than the governor. The governor, on the other hand, certainly has the “bully pulpit,” and advocates of an even-stronger governor must remember that a governor who is of a different philosophical persuasion but who has been given extraordinary power might be tyrannical and would enforce decisions contrary to the broad will of the people. I led the effort in the 1990s while Carroll Campbell was governor to increase his cabinet power and supported Governor Sanford’s proposal for a broadening of his cabinet power and, as an example, supported the revamping of both the Highway Commission and the Work Force Commission, which gives the governor additional powers.

Thus, I have basically been an advocate over the years of strengthening the executive branch.  However, like so many matters of governance, balance is of critical importance. The point is too much power should not be placed in any one of the three bodies.

Concerning the balance of power of the Judiciary, I am open to anyone’s observations that would indicate the Judiciary is somehow not an equal playing partner in the function of the government.

Q: Given that many of the legislative reforms citizens have asked for have not been implemented yet, would you support a change in leadership?

A: The assertion is made that South Carolina is only one of two states that determines chairmanship by seniority. When I first came to the Senate over two decades ago, I advocated that the freshman senators should have more committee appointments, which would have ultimately lessened the authority of a small cadre of senate “bosses.” The recent changes in 2000 to the rule do the same by making all members of the Senate serve on either the Judiciary or Finance Committee. This major change takes away from the power of only a few and spreads it more evenly to the rest of the Senate membership. The question posed to me does not specify how a chairman would be chosen if a seniority system was not in place. Does it imply that the President Pro-Tem should appoint the chairman, which would be equivalent of the House version of Committee appointments in many states around the country? That would give a dictatorship to the President Pro-Tem, making him a hundred times more powerful than he is now.

Does the question imply there should be a rotation of chairman every four to eight years? Often the top four to five members of a committee of the majority party already are chairmen and would not give up their chairmanship on their existing committee. Such a rotation could then leave the chairmanship of a committee in the hands of someone who knows nothing about the matters of the committee that he has become chairman of. Does the question imply that there should be a vote taken by the majority of a committee to determine chairmanship? That system would quickly devolve into simply another form of a seniority system. However, I am open to any suggestion but I am not sure how a critic of the seniority system or committee chairmanship believes that somehow the chairmen of committees and the system that produces chairmen of committees is essential to reform.

Q: For the past two years the General Assembly has only recorded 25 percent of votes they took. How would you propose improving the voting record in the House? Would you support a Constitutional amendment requiring recorded votes?

A: I have been an advocate of recorded votes on everything since I have been in the Legislature. The number of times I have called out “roll-call! roll-call!” over the years during debate on amendments must be in the thousands. I have led the effort among the Republican majority to install voting machines similar to what the House has and to require mandatory roll-calls on every reading of the bill on the calendar. There should further be roll-call votes in committees. We could roll-call also simply from our existing computers, which are on the desks of all senators. This would cost very little and in terms of time would only take seconds. I am in favor of a law that would require this of the Senate and have been in favor of such for many years. Those that argue that the rules of the Senate override any statute misunderstand that there simply would never be a statute in place concerning the Senate rules which the Senate would brazenly flaunt. Why the Senate leadership has had so much trouble in accepting this simple idea of transparency is beyond me.

It is a very good thing that the Senate leadership has actually put the Senate on-camera live during its sessions. It is also good that, in the Journal, one can follow all the amendment activity which is really at the heart of much legislation. Anything that can make accessibility to the public easier, I will support. This need for recorded votes also should apply to any government entity such as city council, county council, school board, fire district, etc., where a citizen might want to see how an elected official has voted.