South Carolina Statehouse

The South Carolina Statehouse. Staff/Andrew Brown 

It’s easy to beat up on the South Carolina Legislature.

When there’s a problem in the state — and there are many — the blame always rolls uphill to Columbia.

People denounce lawmakers for the state of schools, the conditions of roads or the general dysfunction of government. Often with good justification.

But at least our General Assembly isn’t doing any of this:

In Wisconsin, a gerrymandered GOP Legislature is attempting, in a lame-duck session, to limit early voting and strip the incoming Democratic governor of the power to shut down a questionable private-public economic development agency.

In Michigan, Republican lawmakers want to bar the incoming Democratic secretary of state from reviewing their compliance with campaign finance laws.

And both states want to wrest control of state-sponsored lawsuits and turn that power over to legislative leaders.

Yeah, it’s about Obamacare.

Wisconsin and Michigan learned this from North Carolina, where two years ago that Legislature rushed to strip a duly-elected Democratic governor of appointment powers and has attempted to make judicial elections partisan campaigns.

Some folks say this is simply hardball politics; critics call it subverting the will of voters.

Whatever it is, one thing’s clear.

Our Legislature looks mature and sane by comparison.

Old school

Last week, South Carolina legislative leaders announced plans for a major overhaul of the state’s education system.

It needs it. South Carolina’s poor, rural school districts have been battling the state for more than a quarter-century, and even rich school systems like Charleston’s are struggling to educate children.

Veteran state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg Democrat, said the time for study is over. And she’s right. As The Post and Courier series “Minimally Adequate” reminded us, the bar for education in South Carolina has been set far too low for far too long.

Part of it’s a money thing, but partly there’s a genuine disagreement on what, if anything, will make things better.

Cobb-Hunter got a curious response, however. Republican leadership promised to make education reform its top priority, and even some Democrats believe them. A few point to the ouster of House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White as a precursor to major changes.

Fact is, House Speaker Jay Lucas and Majority Leader Gary Simrill — serious, fair and reasonable men — have said they are committed to making substantial, even painful change. And they actually work across the aisle.

While other states’ General Assemblies have become festering dens of hyper-partisanship, our Statehouse still operates on a system of relationships and trust. For the most part.

It’s a throwback to the way state governments used to work, before talk radio helped turn politics into a team sport. Many lawmakers say there’s still that spirit that allowed President Ronald Reagan and U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill to disagree yet work together.

Lawmakers have a chance to prove that in the coming year.

Signs of change

Make no mistake, South Carolina politics are far from benign.

The Republican Legislature won’t turn over redistricting to an independent commission that would draw fairer congressional and legislative districts.

And lawmakers won’t give up the power to appoint judges. Given the alternative — judges elected in political campaigns — that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Some Democratic ideas don’t get much of a hearing at the Statehouse. There isn’t power-sharing, and sometimes the majority lets slip a doozy of a stink bomb.

But for the most part, our Statehouse is spared (lately) the most insidious displays of politics making news around the country.

Obviously, this Legislature isn’t faced with the prospects of constitutional officers from the opposing parties. But some Democrats say even if it were, you wouldn’t see South Carolina go rogue like Wisconsin, Michigan or North Carolina. Not in our nature.

Things often don’t get done at the Statehouse — it’s hard to get 170 people to agree on much of anything — but serious debate is usually underway.

OK, sometimes not in the Senate.

But remember, in recent years this Legislature has taken down the Confederate flag, is avenging a SCANA nuclear fiasco of past lawmakers’ making and raised the gas tax to fix roads.

If they can actually improve education, they’ll look like miracle workers compared to the rest of the country.

There always will be things to criticize the Legislature for, but let’s take solace that at least our unofficial state motto is no longer “Thank God for Mississippi.”

These days, many states are doing a lot worse than South Carolina.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.