Public gets Legislature's number

The South Carolina Statehouse. (Grace Beahm/File)

State legislators who can get tangled up in creationism during a debate over naming the woolly mammoth the state's official fossil probably shouldn't expect much more than a 22 percent public approval rating. And that's what a Post and Courier poll rated the Legislature for the session that ended in mid-June.

And yet the poll results are heartening in a way. They show that the public is actually paying attention to lawmakers who regularly demonstrate their capacity to meet for so many months - January to June - and produce so little.

As the Legislature trends downward to Congress' dismal level, its members should pay heed. Legislators need to accomplish more or sharply reduce the time they spend in Columbia - or preferably both. And after this session, they might want to hire a makeover consultant.

The major achievement of the session was a restructuring bill that had been debated extensively the two previous years, and was approved early in the session. The creation of the Department of Administration will turn over more of state government to the state's chief executive and, as such, is a measurable advance in the Cabinet system initiated 20 years ago by Gov. Carroll Campbell.

The Department of Administration will provide for greater accountability, while eliminating the state Budget and Control Board - the only one of its kind in the nation, and not in the sense of being a praiseworthy distinction.

The Legislature also provided more money for education, as recommended by Gov. Nikki Haley, and it approved an overdue measure banning texting by motorists, which had been debated in previous sessions without success.

But it notably failed to approve ethics reform in its third year of debate. Nor did it provide any additional support for the state's crumbling roads and bridges. It gave some additional money for new school buses, but not enough to be in accord with the law that it previously approved. And the Senate ended the session with a discordant game of musical chairs to determine who would take over for departing Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, as he left to become president of the College of Charleston.

Meanwhile, the year's proceedings were capped off with a backdoor legislative pay hike of $12,000, or 50-plus percent. Apparently a majority of the Legislature thinks they are doing a good job, even if their constituents aren't so appreciative. That proposal only failed because Gov. Haley vetoed it, and the Senate sustained the veto as the session limped to an end.

It is clear that the 44 percent of poll respondents who think the state is headed in the right direction are looking beyond the lackluster record of the Legislature, perhaps to the state's improved economic climate.

"What we saw was a lot of party in-fighting at the end of the year, which leaves voters with a bitter taste in their mouth," Kendra Stewart, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, told our reporter.

In that regard, the mammoth debate in the Senate was one of the high points of the session. It had humor value, and its passage demonstrated that legislators can work together in bipartisan fashion when the stakes are small enough.