I always get nervous when I start seeing my home state in the national news — usually because it means that, in very short order, my people are going to be made the punchline of some (admittedly deserved) national jokes…
At any rate, what caught my eye this time around was a little tidbit in yesterday’s New York Times. Apparently, the South Carolina legislature, having concluded its regular session on Thursday, is taking a week-long recess then reconvening next Monday for a special session to wrap up state business. And, apparently, this didn’t sit well at all with Governor Nikki Haley, who issued an executive order forcing the Senate back into session. The President of the the State Senate, Glen McConnell (no relation, I assume, to the US Senate leader), then filed suit, claiming such an order violated the separation of powers, and the SC Supreme Court agreed.
And that’s it in a nutshell.
There are a couple of things to spell out at the start: first, South Carolina’s governor is, by design, a notoriously weak office; second, South Carolina’s legislature is a notoriously stubborn, intrenched, and downright lazy body of part-time lawmakers. Not in my lifetime have I observed a healthy relationship between the two.
Now, I’m no fan of Gov Haley. Sure, I stuck up for her in response to some pretty tacky campaigning on the part of some South Carolina Democrats, but that was purely out of good manners. As a Tea Party favorite, and an endorsee of Sarah Palin’s, there is very little I can say positively about her politics.
But, I must admit, I am the slightest bit sympathetic in this instance. The reason being that her professed purpose in calling back the senators is to address four items on her agenda that she considers urgent —
- fold the Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Services into the Department of Corrections
- require candidates for governor and lieutenant governor to run on a single ticket
- allow the governor to appoint the state superintendent of education (currently an elected post)
- and create a new Department of Administration, directly under the governor, to consolidate management of the state government and its services
Now, the first two just seem completely common-sense and legislators should have no problem making them happen. The third item I’m less enthusiastic about — even though governors have been requesting this authority for years — simply because it singles out a particular constitutional office for appointment while the other offices (treasurer, state, etc) remain elected. Never mind. The truly important piece of this government restructuring pie is the creation of a new department that would transfer a significant amount of management authority to the state’s executive branch.
Remember those couple things I spelled out a few paragraphs ago?
When it comes to the bulk of day-to-day administration of the state government — from budgets, to auditing, to personnel — South Carolina stands alone in the nation in its preference for management-by-committee, in this case by a body known as the Budget and Control Board (BCB). And on this board sit: the governor; the state treasurer and comptroller general, both popularly elected; and the chairs of the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee, also, obviously, popularly elected. The chief executive of the state thus comprises only ONE-FIFTH of the body that runs a large amount of the state government’s business. Just as a case in point, it has only been since 1993 that the governor has had the authority to submit an executive budget to the Assembly. Prior to that, budget proposals came only from the BCB — and even still, the legislature has incredible leeway in amending the budget proposal as it sees fit. In this and other cases, then, the governor is essentially compelled by the structure of this board to defer to a self-interested, parochial legislature with an agenda of its own.
Or is she?
It seems to me that if you know from the outset (and Gov Haley should, having been a state legislator herself) that you are boxed in by statute, and the only way of breaking out of that box is to convince the legislature to let go of some power (admittedly, a hard sell), that you would from day one begin establishing the best rapport possible.
Granted, I’m guessing that level of rapport is difficult when you combine a legislature that is quite accustomed to keeping its governor on a short lease with a Tea-Party governor who finds it fashionable to be feisty when it looks like she can win some political points (I’m also guessing that the pressure is even greater for Haley, the state’s first female governor, to prove herself against the good-ol’-boy Assembly) . But let’s face it, the legislature still holds the better hand in this deal, and the governor would be wise to wake up to that fact.
Ultimately, she’s shot herself in the foot twice over. Not only is the Assembly likely to be even less accommodating to her policy agenda going forward, she’s also rendered herself weak and erratic as a leader to all but that diminishing group of self-identified Republicans who prefer rigidity over compromise.
Better luck next time, governor.