Henry McMaster was supposed to be different. The former state Republican Party chairman had recruited and helped elect many of today’s legislative leaders and spent eight years nurturing legislative friendships as attorney general. After 14 years of governors who went out of their way to pick fights with the Legislature, and a Democratic governor for four years before that, here at last was one who recognized that the key to getting anything done at the Statehouse is getting along with legislators.
But as the Legislature adjourned Thursday after Mr. McMaster’s first session as elected governor (he also served the last two years of Nikki Haley’s second term), a top Senate leader warned that what looked like a blip could have deeply damaging repercussions.
“They don’t like it when they’re compared to Sanford, because Henry doesn’t think he’s Mark Sanford,” Republican Leader Shane Massey told me Friday. “And he’s not bringing pigs to the Statehouse, he’s not doing the political stunts. But what he’s doing now is much more significant than that.”
More significant than stuffing a defecating piglet under each arm and standing at the ornate entrance to the House chamber, in a made-for-TV news conference protesting pork-barrel spending? For anyone who has visions of a rationally operating state government in which the Legislature focuses on writing laws and leaves the job of executing those laws to the executive branch, that’s a shocking and deeply disturbing assessment. Particularly since Mr. Massey is one of the Senate’s three top advocates for expanding gubernatorial authority, and not given to hyperbole.
At issue is a tug-of-war over the governor’s authority to fill vacant positions while the Legislature is out of session. It started when the Senate adjourned a year ago without voting on Mr. McMaster’s appointment of former Attorney General Charlie Condon to chair the troubled Santee Cooper utility and Mr. McMaster appointed Mr. Condon as interim chairman. The Senate thought that state law only allowed someone new to be appointed, and sued the governor; the Supreme Court said the law as written didn’t actually do that, and Mr. Condon remained interim chairman.
Senators returned to Columbia in January to pass S.1 to do what they had thought the law already did, but the House ignored the bill. The Senate Judiciary Committee finally rejected Mr. Condon’s appointment earlier this month, and the spat might have blown over but for what Mr. McMaster did next. On the same day as the Condon vote, the full Senate rejected Stephen Morris as director of the Department on Aging; the governor asked Mr. Morris to stay on until “a new director is appointed and officially confirmed by the South Carolina Senate.” That could be January; it could be never.
The Senate responded by attaching the language of S.1 to every House bill it passed on Tuesday and Wednesday, threatening to kill all of those bills if the House didn’t accept the amendment. When the House refused — claiming it was staying out of a feud but in fact taking the governor’s side — the Senate inserted even more draconian language into the resolution that spells out the terms under which lawmakers return to Columbia to wrap up loose ends a week from Monday. That language, which the House accepted, prohibits the governor from filling any vacancies until the next legislative session.
This would be little more than under-the-dome political intrigue, of no interest to the general public, if not for that whole relationship thing.
“The governor got a pretty good victory out of the Supreme Court, and as he told me, he doesn’t want to limit executive authority for future governors, and I understand,” Mr. Massey said. “But I think the result of that is you’re actually gonna be weakening executive authority, because if you go down that road, the Legislature will be less willing to grant authority to the executive.”
Over the past six years, the Legislature has given the governor control of the powerful Department of Administration and allowed for public referendums on gubernatorial appointment of the lieutenant governor, adjutant general and education superintendent (voters approved the first two, rejected the third). Mr. Massey said it’s “very unlikely” any of that could pass the Senate now.
“Unfortunately a lot of things do get driven by personality,” he said. “So a lot of the anti-executive reaction you had in the Legislature 10 years ago was directly because of Mark Sanford. There was some of that with Governor Haley, but the relationship got better. Pretty much everybody recognizes the adjutant general should not have been independently elected. But whether they’ll vote for that or not depends on who the governor is.”
That’s not the way things ought to work, but it’s the way things do work. And in fact, the governor has a not entirely unconvincing legal and practical argument for his decision, but that’s neither here nor there when you’re talking about relationships, which are all about emotions.
Mr. Massey and Mr. McMaster both say they want to work out a compromise. They need to make that happen. There’s a lot more at stake than who runs the Department on Aging, or even Santee Cooper.
Cindi Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter @CindiScoppe.