Don’t abandon DOT reform

A pothole on Highway 61 in January. (Brad Nettles/File)

Recent legislative sessions have seen some movement toward state government reform, but so far this year looks like a bust. It could turn out even worse.

The General Assembly is in serious danger of backsliding on an earlier reform of the state Department of Transportation. Without legislative action, the Cabinet-level position of secretary of transportation will be terminated at the end of June under a sunset provision of a 2007 law.

If that happens, the head of the DOT will again become an employee of the state highway commission. That would be the opposite of reform.

Legislators are aware of the possibility and have included provisions to make the secretary of transportation a permanent Cabinet position in bills to raise revenue for the cash-starved agency.

But the latest Senate funding bill didn’t include that provision. If advocates for more highway funding are able to revive that legislation before the end of the session, it must be amended to keep the secretary of transportation in the governor’s Cabinet.

And if that’s not possible, the Legislature should make other arrangements to keep this reform on the books.

“It would be three steps back for the commission to appoint the executive director as we used to do,” Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said Tuesday, according to The Greenville News. “It would revert to what I believe is a highly political way of doing business.”

Since 2007, the secretary of transportation has administered the agency as a Cabinet member. As such he is accountable to the state’s chief executive and can be called on the carpet when agency problems occur.

And having the Cabinet position has been an advance for accountability. Robert St. Onge, a former Army general who served as Gov. Haley’s first secretary of transportation, cited the fiscal problems that the agency was facing, setting the stage for the current effort to increase funding.

In 2013, Secretary St. Onge said that without additional resources he could only “manage the decline” of the state road system. It was an unpleasant truth that the state and its elected officials needed to hear.

Of course, there are some legislators who think they should have the whip hand on state road projects. Already, lawmakers choose most of the members on the highway commission, as well as those on the State Infrastructure Bank.

Having a Cabinet member serve as secretary of transportation provides some needed balance to the system. Failure to make that a permanent position will hurt the DOT’s credibility. And it will undermine the efforts of those legislators who advocate more funding for the agency.

Before the 2007 reform, the highway commission named the agency’s executive director, while making agency policy and selecting road projects. A Legislative Audit Council investigation of DOT operations revealed systemic problems that sparked the reform effort. That included a requirement to fund projects based on priority ranking, and the creation of a DOT Cabinet-level position.

In the last three years, the Legislature has approved reform measures providing for the gubernatorial appointment of the adjutant general, having party nominees for governor and lieutenant governor run as a ticket, and creating a Cabinet agency to supplant the state Budget and Control Board.

So far, there’s nothing on the reform agenda this year. The last thing the Legislature should do is take a step backward on the reform front by diminishing oversight and accountability for the DOT.