One South Carolina presidential primary is now over, dampening the succession of robocalls, ominous videos and lurid mailers. So the prospect for a calmer, more rational week seemed within reach.
Ron Brinson’s Sunday op-ed, attacking Beaufort Sen. Tom Davis, dashed those hopes. Over the past two weeks Davis has filibustered legislation to increase the state gas tax, arguing that the state’s transportation spending process must be fixed before dedicating new money to the road budget.
Brinson’s theme, in short, is that Sen. Davis should shut up, let state legislators raise the gas tax, and not worry about the fiscal abuses, political manipulation and waste that have plagued the state’s transportation funding process for the past three decades. Like the flood of political flyers that has inundated South Carolina mailboxes for the past month, Brinson failed to deliver a coherent rebuttal to Davis’ plea for reform. He devoted precisely 21 words — one half of a sentence — to Davis’ rationale for opposing the current, non-reform bill.
Instead, Brinson invoked fear (“... how many vehicle crash injuries have been related to our state’s unsafe roads and bridges ...?”), ulterior motives, and shadowy affiliations (“... this politically ambitious state senator ...” wanting to “... hone his leadership credentials with the ultraconservative groups ...”).
The take-away is that Sen. Davis is an outlier — a “stubborn” obstructionist promoting a risky and unreasonable point of view.
I suspect Brinson has listened to little of Sen. Davis’ filibuster. Larry Martin, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a proponent of transportation legislation, has heard most of it. This is what Sen. Martin said last week: “It’s not your typical filibuster. He’s really got something important to say. I want him to say it as long a he is inclined to say it because we seem to be learning something new every day that he’s up there.”
This, it would seem, is a fundamental role of democratic debate.
Brinson’s op-ed attempts to marginalize Sen. Davis as pursuing a course of action that will harm our economy and quality of life. But Brinson’s dismissal of the need for structural and procedural reforms is not shared by other business leaders, and Davis’ call for reform is anything but marginal.
S.C. Chamber of Commerce president Ted Pitts, a former legislator, persuasively argues that South Carolina’s economic future depends on a public investment strategy that objectively prioritizes transportation projects. He testified, “Act 114 [signed into law in 2007] has brought some transparency and accountability to the DOT in the process, but what the business community would also say is that the governance model, or the structure of the agency, doesn’t seem to make sense ...”
Pitts specifically calls for reforms to the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB). His reasoning is, “The lion’s share of the money that the General Assembly has allocated [the “new” money] has gone to entities that don’t have to follow that prioritization list. ... So when you look at the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank ... the prioritization process that is important for transparency and accountability is not required to be followed by statute.”
STIB officials also acknowledge the need for reforms. In testimony before the Senate Finance committee, STIB Chair Vince Graham said, “My personal view is if we are going to be helping to facilitate hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure funding, there ought to be some strategy involved.”
All of this underscores Davis’ primary concern about the current system. In his words, “What we have right now is a shadow DOT. We’ve got a separate entity, a separate board, separate funding sources, implementing a separate strategic plan. And that doesn’t make any sense.”
It would be encouraging to think that political abuses of transportation dollars are things of the past. But last Thursday Davis read a transcript from testimony by recently appointed DOT Chair Mike Wooten. Wooten said the commission would unilaterally change the state’s ranking system to give certain projects an advantage. This followed testimony that he viewed his job as doing what the Grand Strand legislators who had appointed him wanted him to do.
That, Sen. Davis said, is exactly the problem: The chair of the DOT Commission does not understand that his primary responsibility is to the state as a whole.
All of this testimony goes directly to the heart of the challenge South Carolina faces — how to restructure the agencies that control billions of transportation dollars and eradicate the provincialism and back room deals that have created the problems we face today.
Brinson clearly believes these issues are simply annoying diversions that are delaying sending hundreds of millions more dollars annually to the same flawed system. That would be the easy path to follow. Fortunately, Sen. Davis has chosen a different course.
Dana Beach is executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.