You know all that stuff the Legislature didn’t get done last year? Providing a decent education to all children regardless of where they live. Deciding the fate of Santee Cooper. Protecting the natural resources that make South Carolina such a desirable tourist destination and such a great place to live. Investing our limited resources wisely. Reducing abuses of office that are occurring at every level.
SC lawmakers filed bills to speed vote counting, protect our coast from drilling, restrict vaping, reduce secrecy in budgeting and economic incentives, close the revolving door for utility regulators, regulate nurdles, reform magistrate selection and solve other new problems in the 2020 legislative session.
It’s all waiting for lawmakers when they return to Columbia on Tuesday, and it’s all more urgent now. Also, a few new items have been added to the to-do list.
And extremists on the left and right are camped out on Twitter, waiting for legislators to do something pragmatic, so they can primary them in this year’s elections.
Which makes it all the more difficult for lawmakers to do pragmatic things — and all the more important for the rest of us to support them when they do.
Here are the six things South Carolina needs our Legislature to accomplish between now and June:
1. Educate all kids
There is nothing more important for our Legislature to do than ensure that all children receive a decent education. Even if you don’t care about the children who are failing, the fact is that our state won’t continue to attract good jobs and won’t be the place we all want our own children and grandchildren to live unless they succeed.
We’ve been nibbling around the edges of education reform in South Carolina, but finally we’re looking at a game-changer.
That starts long before kindergarten, because the students who fail almost always are the disadvantaged children who start school behind their better-off peers and never catch up. If we help their parents become their first and best teachers, and then get them into a strong 4-year-old kindergarten program, and maybe even earlier programs, we can set them on the course for success.
The Legislature needs to do more beyond expanding and improving early childhood education: improve teacher preparation programs, provide teachers the support they need to teach, and help school districts that are struggling. And lawmakers need to make sure school funding goes where it’s most needed, and that there’s enough money overall — all to ensure every child has a good teacher, and the children who are struggling the most have the very best teachers and get extra help though extended days and summer programs.
Lawmakers can’t get this done in one year — or even in a decade. But they can set us on the right course.
2. Settle Santee Cooper
Although it might not be smart for a government to create an electric utility, there is no easy answer about what to do once it owns one — even one that ran up $4 billion in debt on a now-abandoned nuclear construction project. The right answer is what’s best for customers.
SC electric utility Santee Cooper hopes to convince the Legislature not to sell it by assembling a plan to keep ratepayers' power bills down, with more solar energy and less coal. But there's no way to enforce its promises unless it convinces lawmakers to reform its governing system.
SCE&G and state-owned Santee Cooper had barely pulled the plug on two overdue, over-budget reactors they were building before some lawmakers declared that we had to sell Santee Cooper. Others declared we could never sell. Two and a half years later, state officials are evaluating bids to select the best offer to buy the utility, the best offer to run it for the state, and a proposal from Santee Cooper’s management to keep it state-owned. Lawmakers will pick one of the three.
Their decision must come down to this: South Carolina should sell Santee Cooper if that will result in the most reliable and clean energy and the lowest electricity rates — not just next year but for decades to come. South Carolina should get rid of the board and management and contract with an outside company to manage the utility if that would give us the best results. And if neither is the case, we should keep the utility — although with reforms that will make its governing board more accountable, preferably to the governor.
3. Meet our obligations
Because the state has $1.8 billion in new revenue and the next state budget is expected to top $10 billion, the governor and some legislators are demanding tax cuts. And tax cuts are fine — after we meet our obligations.
S.C. budget writers started talking about tax cuts after they learned last week that they’ll have an additional $1.8 billion to spend in next year’s budget. But even if it made sense to raise or reduce taxes based on one year’s revenue, it wouldn’t make sense in this case, because the additional revenue is largely the result of budget forecasters being too conservative in the past two years.
About $1 billion of that new revenue is surplus resulting from too-conservative budget projections, and we shouldn’t cut taxes — or hire new people, or create new programs — with one-time money. What we can do is purchase school buses and security equipment for our prisons and tackle deferred maintenance needs at state buildings and help local governments pay for property buyouts, dredging and other flood-abatement projects.
It’ll take about $400 million of the recurring funding just to keep up with inflation and population growth so services remain at their current level. That leaves $400 million for vital needs such as expanding 4K and increasing pay for teachers, correctional officers and social workers. Such increases will combat the shortages that make it impossible to teach all our kids, to prevent escapes and deadly prison riots, and to satisfy a federal court order requiring better protection for the 4,600 children in state care.
Actually, we might not be able to do all of that with $400 million. So if lawmakers want to cut taxes, they’ll need to do something they’ve never been willing to do, which is to set real priorities and eliminate programs that are nice but not essential.
4. Respect local government
It takes a lot of time and effort for legislators to constantly dictate to cities and counties what they must do and what they can’t do, particularly since that often gets down to the level of (unconstitutionally) telling a single locality what it must do. That’s one reason legislators don’t have the creativity or energy or time to take care of those things we need them to do — like providing a decent education to all children.
The SC Legislature loves to prohibit cities and counties from protecting their communities, with such laws as the the pig-farm-ban ban and the billboard-ban ban and an indoor-smoking-ban ban. And of course the gun-ban ban. Or, more accurately, the ban on cities and counties imposing even the most modest restrictions on guns.
Again this year, some legislators want to prohibit duly elected city and county councils from banning plastic bags in their communities. And limit how much the people we elect to run our cities and counties can charge for business license taxes. And who knows what else they’ll dream up.
If they want to pass laws affecting cities and counties, it should be laws to roll back some of the restrictions and mandates already in place. Then they need to spend the rest of their time doing the jobs we elected them to do.
5. Protect our beaches
South Carolina is blessed with abundant natural resources — not the least of which are our magnificent beaches — that make our state a wonderful place to live and a top tourist destination. Whatever we think of the tourists, they power much of our economy, so the Legislature has both an obligation and an interest in protecting our natural resources.
That means prohibiting the permitting of any land-based facilities that support exploration or drilling off our coast, and supporting judicial and administrative efforts to keep our coast off limits to oil companies.
In South Carolina, we don’t have much choice about how much we pay for electricity, because we don’t have much choice about where we purchase our electricity.
As the State Ports Authority recruits nurdle exporters to the Lowcountry, it means creating a regulatory system to prevent the tiny plastic pellets from spilling into Charleston Harbor and polluting Sullivan’s Island (and other beaches and waters) as they did this summer.
It means saying no to the DeBordieu Colony property owners who want to rebuild their battered sea wall, which will increase beach erosion and cut off public access to what’s left of the public beach.
And it means taking any opportunities — among them increasing our reliance on solar and other alternative energy sources — to combat the global climate change that threatens to drown Charleston and other parts of our coast.
6. Combat abuse of office
Sheriffs who can’t obey the law they’re supposed to enforce. Judges who don’t understand the law or the concept of neutrality. Judicial regulators who can’t find any abuses to police. Government agencies that can’t seem to understand our state’s public records law. Boards that ignore our open meetings law. Local officials who can’t seem to turn down the meals and other gifts from organizations vying for contracts.
Maybe South Carolina is just full of corrupt people. Or maybe our Legislature has nurtured a culture of abuse by failing to create the sort of oversight that would deter officials from crossing ethical and legal lines and make it easier to identify and punish them if they do.
We think it’s the latter. Lawmakers can create a more public-service-oriented government at all levels by passing tougher disclosure laws, with tougher watchdogs enforcing those laws and tougher penalties for violating them.