COLUMBIA — Fed up with what they perceive to be rampant government inefficiency and excessive power concentrated in the hands of a few select legislators, dozens of freshman South Carolina lawmakers are preparing to launch an ambitious new proposal: Rewriting the state constitution.
The central complaint of these lawmakers — 25 in all from both the House and the Senate — is that the current system gives too much authority to the Legislature and too little to the governor. As a result, a handful of influential legislators hold massive sway over the entire state.
That power structure, the lawmakers argue, is responsible for many of the most intractable problems confronting the state — from crumbling roads to weak ethics laws to unequal educational opportunities. Some areas of the state are consistently prioritized over others based on who holds power in the Legislature, they contend.
"When you really ask the question: 'What is the root problem here?' It's that the structure is not designed for accountability," said state Rep. Micah Caskey, R-Lexington. "The incremental approach we've taken to reforms has failed."
In an attempt to remedy that problem, the lawmakers are introducing a bill that will call for a ballot referendum on a state constitutional convention.
To add the initiative to election ballots, the bill would require the support of two-thirds of both chambers. That means the referendum could be added to ballots as soon as this November if the measure were to pass this session.
If a majority of the public then votes in favor of the notion, the Legislature could begin to set out the ground rules for a convention where a new state constitution can be written.
The lawmakers hope that the process will produce a constitution that gives more authority to the governor, rendering the three branches of state government more equal in power. But they note that if the convention takes place, all ideas can be on the table and people can offer other proposals.
In the House, the effort is being led by state Reps. William Cogswell, R-Charleston, Jason Elliott, R-Greenville, and Caskey.
The trio began discussing the idea informally over the past few months with state Sen. William Timmons, a Greenville Republican who is running for Congress. After walking through the legal questions with constitutional attorneys, they approached other new members of the General Assembly about getting on board.
The group has now enlisted 18 of the 29 freshman House members and seven of the nine freshman senators. They have not begun to reach out to the rest of the Statehouse but have informed House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Greg Delleney, R-Chester, about the idea.
The lawmakers behind the effort said they are clear-eyed about the difficult path ahead.
"We're doing this because we want to be successful in the effort and it needs to be done," Elliott said. "But it took about four years to pass a moped bill, so I'm under no illusion that a new constitution will be enacted in short order."
Still, they argued that by getting the proposal out there, they could begin to build momentum and rally the public behind the idea.
"You've got a situation where it's pretty obvious to your average South Carolinian that there's a major problem, and it's pretty obvious to people inside the bubble that know the structure of government here that we've got a major problem," Cogswell said. "So at what point do you address the problem?"
The South Carolina constitution has been rewritten six times in state history, but the last time was back in 1895. That 1895 constitution was orchestrated by then-U.S. Sen. Ben Tillman with the express intention of keeping African-Americans from voting and holding office. By limiting the power of the governor, Tillman's thinking went, white lawmakers could suppress the agenda of an African-American governor if one ever were to win a statewide election.
In the decades since, South Carolina governors have often complained about their limited power, effectively constrained to the bully pulpit and vetoing legislation that reaches their desk. Many of the candidates running for governor in 2018 have said they would like to give more authority to the executive branch of state government.
The public has also shown its dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. A Winthrop University poll of residents released Wednesday said the most important issues facing the Palmetto State are: roads/bridges/infrastructure, education, jobs or unemployment, racism and gun control.
Several of these arguably fall right in the laps of the Statehouse.
In the poll the General Assembly got an approval nod of 42 percent of those surveyed, while 35 percent disapprove of their job performance.
The reform group emphasized that the new state constitution would not have any impact on federal constitutional protections but would be focused solely on redesigning the configuration of state government.
“To those who say this is an impossible task, clearly there is precedent for doing it, but we are not naive to the fact that it hasn’t been done in 123 years," Caskey said. "It's going to require a lot of effort."
Seanna Adcox contributed to this report.
Video produced by EK Collaborations.
Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.