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Editorials represent the institutional view of the newspaper. They are written and edited by the editorial staff, which operates separately from the news department. Editorial writers are not involved in newsroom operations.

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Editorial: SC House is all for transparency — until it involves something important

OttCommerce

S.C. Rep. Russell Ott urges the House to require the Commerce Department to report on whether companies are living up to the promises they made in return for taxpayer-funded economic development incentives. 

On Tuesday, the S.C. House voted to require the Commission on Higher Education to produce a report on whether colleges are complying with a possibly unconstitutional law that requires students to pass a course on U.S. history and complete a loyalty oath in order to graduate.

Representatives also voted to add a proviso to the state budget requiring the State Election Commission to report on the number of election fraud investigations conducted regarding the November election.

The Ways and Means Committee had already added — and the full House adopted without incident — a proviso requiring the state Education Department to compile a report examining pandemic-era test data in all public schools. And another requiring the department to produce a report on the number and type of employees all schools and districts employ.

Those are fairly typical of the sort of reporting requirements the Legislature routinely inserts into the annual budget bill, typically with little or no debate — sometimes because the Legislature honestly wants the information to help it make decisions, and sometimes to make a political point.

But when Reps. Russell Ott and Marvin Pendarvis proposed requiring the state Commerce Department to submit annual reports to the Legislature “explaining how recipients of these (economic incentive) grants funds are meeting required obligations,” well, you would have thought they had suggested giving out the nation’s nuclear codes.

Never mind that there was nothing in that language to require the Commerce Department to claw back incentives it gives to companies that don’t live up to their promises to create jobs in return for our money.

Never mind that state law already requires the department to release that information in response to Freedom of Information requests — assuming people realize the information exists, and are willing to pay $45 an hour for however long the agency says it takes to compile the information.

Or that Mr. Ott and Mr. Pendarvis got the idea of requiring annual reports after Commerce voluntarily released that very sort of information earlier this year — in an effort to quell criticism of its cult of secrecy.

That report showed that the agency allowed 39 businesses to keep taxpayer-funded incentives in 2020 even though they had not complied with the terms of their agreements. In most cases, the companies created some of the jobs they promised. But not in all cases.

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Commerce allowed GE Gas Turbines of Greenville to keep its $750,000 grant when it spent 10 times as much money as it had promised but produced none of the 83 jobs it promised. Likewise, ICE Recycling in Florence County got to keep its entire $55,000 grant after it invested about a third more money than promised and produced none of the 25 jobs promised. That’s right: zero jobs. In both cases.

As troublesome as those revelations were, releasing that report was just the sort of thing that savvy agencies do: Provide information voluntarily, promise to “cooperate” with critics, so no one will pass a law requiring you to release such information routinely. Because as long as there’s no law, you can decide when to report and when not to, and what to include in the report and what to leave out.

And as far as the S.C. House is concerned, that sort of manipulation is just fine.

Why, Commerce is doing a great job, and we don’t dare do anything that could possibly interfere with its “secret sauce,” House Democratic Leader Todd Rutherford said. Just look at all of the successes in its voluntary report, chimed in Rep. Leon Stavrinakis; there are always going to be failures when you’re trying to recruit jobs to the state, so we shouldn’t ask the agency to provide any information about the failures. Which is sort of like saying we shouldn't ask the Education Department to tell us how many kids don't learn to read by third grade, because so many more do.

Mr. Stavrinakis also claimed the proposal would mean the Commerce Department had to give out information on current deals it’s negotiating. The kindest thing we can say about that claim is that it’s a strained interpretation of the simple language of the amendment. But he refused to answer any questions, and supporters — obviously seeing the writing on the wall — didn’t refute him or offer to make the language even clearer than it already was, but instead allowed the vote to go forward.

And 70 of the 124 House members voted against requiring the Commerce Department to report annually on which companies had fulfilled their legal obligations and which ones had failed to — and whether it had required those that failed to give back some of the money that S.C. taxpayers gave them in return for promising to create those jobs.

We hope they just weren’t paying attention, or were misled by Mr. Rutherford and Mr. Stavrinakis into believing that the proviso would reveal secrets or in some way compromise the Commerce Department’s economic recruitment efforts, or that they simply didn’t think the budget was the appropriate place to address the problem. Surely our representatives aren’t opposed to requiring state agencies to tell the public when it spends our tax dollars to procure state jobs and those jobs don’t develop.

We hope too that Sens. Wes Climer and Dick Harpootlian will continue working across the hall to shine a little more sunlight on the department — and that their efforts will inspire our representatives to show a little concern about how state agencies are spending our tax dollars.

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