A top S.C. state senator says she’s surprised Gov. Henry McMaster is letting a longtime friend keep running a state agency after he was rejected by the Senate last week to get the job permanently.
Sen. Katrina Shealy pledged to close the loophole that allows Stephen Morris to continue as acting director of the state Department of Aging despite the Senate’s 41-2 rejection in his nomination on Tuesday.
Two days after the rejection, McMaster sent a letter Morris that will keep him in the $109,460 a year job until “a new director is appointed and officially confirmed by the South Carolina Senate."
Shealy, a Lexington Republican who leads the committee that oversees the aging agency, said the governor's letter is a sign of executive overreach.
"I'm shocked that the governor would leave it open ended like that, that you can stay until someone else is appointed," Shealy said. "We’ll have to discuss in the senate on Tuesday. You just can’t let that happen and not do anything."
Up until this year, the Department of Aging had been under the lieutenant governor's office. But a new law went into effect at the beginning of 2019 that made the agency a cabinet-level post under the governor.
McMaster put Morris, who previously ran the aging agency, in charge as acting director and nominated him for the permanent post that requires Senate approval.
"Mr. Morris was executive director of the agency before the new law went into effect and he will continue to serve in that position until his replacement is appointed and confirmed," said Brian Symmes, the governor's spokesman. "He hasn't been appointed to a new position, or as (an) interim. He's simply serving in the same capacity he was in before he was nominated."
Concerns surfaced during Morris’ confirmation hearings over his short tenure as aging czar.
Employees alleged the 71-year-old from Columbia made derogatory comments to females and minorities and that he sides with the agency’s white male supervisors in disagreements, said Sen. Mia McLeod, D-Columbia, at a hearing in the confirmation process in April.
Morris denied the accusations of discrimination but did acknowledge there was poor morale among the agency's employees, which he blamed on constant turnover in administration since legislators put the office under the lieutenant governor’s control in 2004.
Shealy said that in a perfect world, legislators would agree that the governor's pick was the best. The senator said she respects McMaster and his right to choose cabinet officials he wants to work with.
But the bottom line for Shealy and her colleagues is that Morris is not fit for the position.
"There was a resounding no vote," she said. "There was still turmoil in that agency. (Morris) had been in that position before. Some of those same problems were carried over. It’s nothing personal. I’m hopeful that we can figure out this situation."
Shealy added that lawmakers need to examine state laws surrounding a governor's power to make appointments.
"We have to go and look at how that law is written," she said. "Undoubtedly there’s a terrible loophole there somewhere."
A bill aimed at curbing the governor's appointment powers passed the Senate this year but has been stuck in the state's House of Representatives.
That bill came after McMaster appointed former state Attorney General Charlie Condon as board chairman of Santee Cooper when the Legislature was out of session. The appointment came after the Senate did not act on Condon’s nomination when the General Assembly was in session.
The state Supreme Court backed McMaster’s appointment, leading the Senate to push for a change.
On the same day that Morris was rejected, a Senate panel nixed Condon’s appointment to Santee Cooper.
Andy Shain contributed to this report.