Calling his State Ports Authority restructuring bill a means to keep politics and poor communication from stifling South Carolina commerce, Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, delivered a plea for approval on the Senate floor Wednesday.
But after nearly three hours of questions and debate, the Senate adjourned without resolution.
The bill, co-sponsored by Robert Ford, D-Charleston, and by President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, would screen all candidates to the SPA board and require that each bring at least five years of experience in one of a list of fields, including maritime shipping, accounting and law.
The bill also would eliminate the governor's ability to remove board members at will.
Under the current setup, the governor "has the ability, with the stroke of a pen, to replace all nine members and start over," Grooms said.
Turnover poses a problem, Grooms said, in an agency that plans 20 years in advance.
The restructuring bill comes after months of negative news from the SPA: First, the nearly 10 percent cargo decline reported over the summer, while arch-rival Savannah grew by about the same percentage.
Then the port's largest customer, Denmark-based Maersk Line, made public its intentions to depart Charleston if it could not find a suitable cost-saving arrangement. And last month SPA Chief Executive Bernard S. Groseclose Jr. announced his resignation.
The bill would require an annual performance review of the agency's executive director with a written report to the governor and the General Assembly. The SPA has said it has no records of Groseclose's past job evaluations.
Grooms said the Maersk situation possibly could have been avoided if the SPA communicated better with other key maritime players. His bill also would create an 11-person advisory committee made up of members of the waterfront and business communities.
With the Senate just beginning to discuss the bill, Gov. Mark Sanford issued a written statement decrying it as "a step backward in bringing accountability to the ports authority."
"Nibbling around the edges of this bill will not address its fundamental flaw, and that is the idea of taking away a governor's ability to hire and fire board members," he said.
Sanford has removed one board member during his six years in office.
Sanford suggested leaving that removal power in place or, even better, getting rid of the board and installing a governor- appointed executive director, as Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island, and Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, have proposed.
Reached after the Senate debate, Merrill said: "Having dealt with the port for the last nine years and seeing the ebb and flow of how it operates, I was very surprised to see (Grooms) put in something that will be pretty ineffectual. There is no way you can convince me the way to increase efficiency and reduce bureaucracy is by adding a layer of bureaucracy."