It is deeply disturbing that our Legislature was not willing to turn over investigations of legislators’ compliance with the ethics law to someone besides legislators. But even considering that inexcusable failure to put the public interest ahead of legislators’ own self-interests and paranoia, the 2014 General Assembly that concluded on Thursday was the most successful in years.
Topping the list of accomplishments was the long-delayed abolition of the Budget and Control Board, the constitutionally offensive panel that gave two legislators equal say with the governor and two obscure statewide elected officials in overseeing a giant central administrative agency by the same name. Although a much less powerful version of the board will remain, the legislation marked the most significant change in two decades toward allowing South Carolina’s governor to act like a governor. And for the first time ever, it gave our Legislature the tools and mandate to act like a legislature rather than a 170-headed governor.
An even more symbolically significant reform will ask voters in November to dismantle one of the most glaring anachronisms in our state constitution and let the governor appoint the adjutant general, rather than putting our military leader to a popular election.
Lawmakers finally acknowledged that it costs more to educate poor children than their middle-class peers, directing a larger portion of state education dollars to children in poverty. And they directed new funding to provide 4-year-old kindergarten to more poor children, to focus intensely on reading in the early grades and to help supply the hardware and training to integrate modern technology into classrooms. The road toward providing all of South Carolina’s children an opportunity to get the education our state needs them to get is long, and this is a mere first step. But it is a first step.
The Legislature also gave the State Election Commission power to protect voters from incompetent county election officials such as the ones who oversaw the Richland office, and averted a related crisis that threatened to cancel this year’s elections over legislative meddling that created constitutional flaws in the county election boards.
It acted to make our roads safer, requiring all repeat drunken drivers to install ignition-interlock devices so they can’t start their vehicles if they’ve been drinking, and removing our status as one of only four states with no restrictions on texting while driving (and we actually got a complete ban).
It even seems likely that lawmakers will sign off on important income and campaign-finance reporting reforms in a wrap-up session the week after next, though we’re withholding judgment until we and others can more thoroughly review a complex plan that was not available to the public until hours after the House signed off on it Thursday afternoon.
There is much the Legislature did not do beyond ethics reform, from overhauling our loophole-riddled, special-interest-driven tax code to empowering a central office to set and enforce security standards across state government, to prevent another massive data breach like the one at the Revenue Department in 2012. Indeed, the fact that this was the most productive session in years says as much about what abysmal failures recent sessions have been as about how successful this one was.
But just as the continuing failures need to be recognized, so do the successes. And this year, our Legislature produced several important successes that will improve our state in the short- and long-term.