The perfect example of South Carolina legislators saying one thing and doing another is the decades-old struggle between state and local governments.

Conservative rhetoric will fill buckets about how the national government is horrible for forcing Obamacare, unfunded mandates and regulations onto the state. They’ll spout talking points about how government should be closer to the people.

But what happens when the same logic is applied to the relationship between state and local governments? The conversation gets much, much quieter.

That’s because state lawmakers, for all their puffery, don’t want to give up their fiefdoms. If they truly unleashed local governments from state controls, they wouldn’t have as much power. All kidding aside, might that not be a good thing?

From the early days of the Carolina colony, a central authority controlled local spending and taxes — first through a Commons House of Assembly under the Lords Proprietors and later through a legislature outlined in the state’s seven different constitutions, the most recent of which is 118 years old.

“Under the 1895 constitution, power in South Carolina trickled down from state government to the people; it did not flow upward,” historian Walter Edgar wrote in his book South Carolina: A History. “The General Assembly arrogated that [local government] power to itself ... These mandarins spent more time dealing with local legislation than they did with governing the State of South Carolina.”

But following the U.S. Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” decision in 1972, states had to equalize election districts based on population. Gone were the days of one senator representing each county, regardless of its size. Gone were the days in which a county’s senator and its state representatives wrote the “supply bill,” or budget, to fund government in the county. In the end, the new rules greatly weakened rural power that controlled the state for decades.

In 1975, the General Assembly, following a constitutional referendum approved by voters, passed the Local Government Act, which set out some ways local governments could have “home rule,” or set their own destiny. Prior to this act, counties had limited powers to tax and issue bonds for things like road building and repair, jails and local courts, unlike municipalities, which had broader powers.

But as local governments got new ways to operate with new revenue streams, the state didn’t fully pull back. It reserved many powers — so much so that one longtime government observer suggested that ever since the home rule act devolved powers to local governments, the state has been trying to take them back.

Fast forward to today. Indirectly, the state still exerts a lot of control over local government purses. Just a few years back, it significantly curbed the ability of local powers to levy residential property taxes, capping property taxing power and replacing it with sales tax revenue collected by the state. (The change in law was known as Act 388.)

“Legislators cap a county’s ability to be creative about revenue-raising,” one local government administrator says. “If the people don’t like what the county does, they’ll vote out the council members.”

State officials also frequently interject themselves in what should be county business.

Does it make sense, for example, for legislators to appoint members to local boards of elections, which are paid with county money? Had the Richland County Election Commission been under local control instead of de facto rule by the state, maybe it wouldn’t have had as many problems in the 2012 election.

Does it make sense for county lawmakers to have board positions on Charleston County’s airport authority, the group that just hired a state senator to run it?

Legislators continue to hold significant sway in local school decisions because changes in governance, such as consolidation, have to go through Columbia. Lawmakers appoint regional boards. They hold delegation hearings to put agencies on notice, such as a recent circus to complain about whether a privately held law school could be sold to a private company.

South Carolinians voted almost 40 years ago that “all laws concerning local government shall be liberally construed in their favor.” People still want real accountability. It’s time for state lawmakers to finally get out of the way.

Andy Brack is publisher of Statehouse Report. You can reach him at brack@statehousereport.com. Statehouse Report also publishes a news analysis by Bill Davis.

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