Legislature can make history with Confederate flag vote

Protesters hold a sign during a rally to take down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse, Tuesday, June 23, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)

As it limped to the end of a disappointing legislative session, the General Assembly finally managed to put a little hop in its step last week. It finished the budget before the end of the fiscal year, as state law envisions, and it applied surplus revenue to the road problem at the local level.

The Legislature also allocated $70 million in surplus funds for road improvements that are part of the economic development incentives for Volvo. In doing so it avoided an ill-advised financing plan that would have cost the state millions in extra interest payments.

And last, but certainly not least, the Legislature agreed to take up the issue of the Confederate flag in the wake of the racially motivated assault at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, in which nine people, including a state senator, were murdered.

Furling the flag will help resolve a long-standing controversy caused by the simple fact that the flag, which flies over a Civil War monument, evokes such sharply varying emotions and opinions among state residents.

Many South Carolinians revere the battle flag as a symbol of the gallantry of their ancestors in the bloody conflict, in which 20,000 of the state’s soldiers died.

Others view it as representative of slavery, segregation and opposition to civil rights.

There is no question that the Confederate battle flag was long ago appropriated by hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. And by others today as well. Photos of the alleged killer at Emanuel AME Church show him with a Confederate flag, and a handgun.

As President Obama said Friday during funeral services for state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, “It’s true a flag did not cause these murders. But ... as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride.”

With its failure to approve ethics reform and a long-term plan for funding the state Department of Transportation, the Legislature was on the verge of being dismissed as a do-nothing body — even worse, utterly wasteful in its use of state resources and time over a long session.

That its last-minute action on the budget can be viewed as significant shows how low the bar for legislative achievement has been set.

The fact that the Legislature accelerated its approval of the budget was an acknowledgement of a looming public relations disaster. The Legislature did not want to rely on a continuing resolution to keep state agency operations funded — as has a gridlocked Congress in past years.

Nevertheless, the responsible allocation of surplus funds will benefit both taxpayers and motorists. More than $200 million will be returned to the counties, via their local C-fund committees, to address priority maintenance and repairs.

The budget also includes funding for the children’s hospital at MUSC and an aeronautics center at Trident Tech. Both projects are worthy of state support.

The Legislature next has an opportunity to make a historic decision with the flag vote. When it returns to Columbia in July, the Legislature should furl the flag. More than ever, it is a symbol of divisiveness.