Throwback Thursday: The Most Powerful Lawmakers in South Carolina

December 12, 2019

Inside Insight

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With the start of the legislative session right around the corner, it’s a good time to review who’s actually in charge of state government (hint: It’s not the governor). In South Carolina, most of the essential functions of state government are controlled by a handful of lawmakers, who enjoy powerful board and commission positions and appointments tied by law to their legislative leadership positions.

For instance, for years Sen. Hugh Leatherman – as both the Senate president pro tempore and Senate Finance Committee chairman – enjoyed vast influence over state procurement, bonding and capital projects, the screening and nomination of judges, the construction of new roads, and public education. However, with a recent Senate leadership reshuffling (triggered by the fact that the lieutenant governor is now jointly elected with the governor and no longer presides over the Senate), the president pro tem position has been eliminated and its statutory appointment powers transferred to the Senate president (elected from among the Senate body and who presides over the Senate proceedings).

The Senate elected Harvey Peeler as Senate president, who now controls several significant appointments – most notably to the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (the panel that screens and nominates judges), the Education Oversight Committee, and the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB – which issues bonds to finance major road construction projects) board. Peeler allowed Leatherman to remain on the STIB board.

It should be noted that most of Leatherman’s most significant powers – which he retains – have always been tied to his Senate Finance chairmanship. To sum up, most of the vast power over state government on the Senate side is now concentrated in two leaders rather than one.

But that’s not the only recent change. On the House side, Rep. Murrell Smith was appointed last year to replace Rep. Brian White as the Ways and Means Committee chairman. With that appointment, he now automatically sits on the State Fiscal Accountability Authority (which approves procurement, bond and capital project requests) and appoints half of the Joint Bond Review Committee (which initially reviews bond and capital project requests). In addition to his new ex-officio positions and appointment powers, Smith also was appointed by the House speaker to the JMSC and serves as its chairman. In addition, Smith is the House Ethics Committee chairman.

While the Ways and Means Committee chairmanship is technically elected by the committee members, House committee appointments ultimately are controlled by House speaker Jay Lucas. By far the most powerful member of the House, Lucas also has a lot of the same appointment powers held by Sens. Leatherman and Peeler, plus some additional ones. For instance, he holds vast sway over regulation of the energy industry by virtue of direct or indirect appointment of over half of the Public Utilities Review Committee, which nominates and oversees utility regulators – a power enjoyed by neither Sens. Leatherman or Peeler.

This week’s throwback is a reminder of just how much of the everyday government functions in South Carolina are controlled – not by a governor who is accountable to the entire state, but by a handful of legislative leaders who answer only to the voters of their districts.

Who Runs South Carolina State Government?

From education to road funding, from the judicial system to your electric bill, the important decisions are made by state lawmakers who represent only their districts. Most South Carolinians don’t vote for them – or even know their names. So when your power bill goes up again, or when your child’s college tuition goes up again, or when you suspect a state judge is on the take, or when your county’s roads are allowed to crumble . . . who do you hold accountable? Good question.

► A few legislators can decide, almost by themselves, how much you pay to heat and cool your home.

► Lawmakers – elected only by the people of their districts – hold the lion’s share of power in deciding which roads get built, which roads get repaired, and which roads get ignored.

► Lawmakers – and especially a few legislative leaders – have unqualified power to decide who will interpret the laws they write.

► The power to impose educational standards on public schools, and the power to raise tuition at public colleges, rests almost entirely with lawmakers and their appointees.

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