COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley lobbied for complete oversight of the state Department of Transportation today by blaming the governing commission for South Carolina's road and bridge trouble.
The first-term Republican's comments came after a Budget and Control Board meeting where her Transportation Secretary Robert St. Onge outlined an extensive list of changes the agency has made since its severe cash flow troubles surfaced this summer.
Haley said now is the time for the Legislature to build on a 2007 overhaul of the agency that knocked out its top management at that time and shifted partial control the governor's office. Haley said she can only do so much to change the agency's internal management and yearslong money problems.
"We don't need a political body handling infrastructure," Haley said. "All it is, is wheeling and dealing and taking care of their region."
She continued, "The reason we have infrastructure problems in our state is there is a body of people that is in between the agency and the Legislature. (If) you move that body out, (make) one person accountable, then we will start to see our road production get back to where it needs to be."
Six of the seven members are the commission are appointed by legislators from the state's congressional districts. The seventh is an at-large appointee seated by the governor.
Legislators have expressed concerns about shifting total control to the governor's office, arguing that the chief executive — whomever it may be — is not above politics.
Haley said the difference is that she will take a statewide approach to road and bridge construction and maintenance with economic development needs as a priority.
State Treasurer Curtis Loftis, who pushed months ago to have the Transportation Department present its situation to the Budget and Control Board, said he was not satisfied with the agency's attempts to correct its problems.
Over the summer, the agency acknowledged that it did not have enough money to pay contractors and long-term financial commitments, so it turned to the federal government for money. The agency received a $52 million reimbursement from the federal government in one lump sum, rather than being spread out over a 12-month period, to use as a cash infusion to get caught up on the bills.
Loftis said the Transportation Department has failed every test of accountability and transparency it has faced. He said the agency has failed to provide a complete financial picture when the Treasurer's Office has demanded it.
Loftis took on the agency after receiving calls from contractors who had not been paid.
Loftis also challenged St. Onge's decision to demote Angela Feaster from her position as the agency's deputy secretary for finance and administration.
"It seemed that a head had to roll, and it was hers," he said.
On Monday, St. Onge announced that he had replaced Feaster with Christy Hall, an 18-year Transportation Department employee who served most recently as the district engineer administrator.
Haley said after the meeting that she was recommended the shake-up.
"Here you have a finance director who changed her cash flow numbers all the time," the governor said. "I am not going to throw one person under the bus, but as an accountant, that is your job. Your job is the financial stability of that agency. There was a terrible flaw there. Something needed to change."
Haley and Loftis clashed earlier in the meeting as well.
The governor announced a pilot program at the Department of Commerce that would add the need for the state's job recruiters to land economic development deals in rural areas to get incentive pay.
The board voted 4-1 to approve the change to the already existing employee incentive pay program on a two-year trial. Loftis challenged the idea of a program that would pay state workers extra cash before the jobs are actually created.