Without hearing any public comment Wednesday, a Senate panel all but scrapped a plan to put the governor in charge of South Carolina's controversial environmental and health agency.
The Senate Medical Affairs subcommittee signaled its intent to maintain the status quo at the Department of Health and Environmental Control - despite a call by conservation groups and some lawmakers to put the agency's director in the governor's Cabinet.
DHEC "has worked pretty well," said Richland County Democrat Darrell Jackson, who said he hasn't heard "that there are serious problems with DHEC that need to be fixed."
The subcommittee meets again Oct. 28 to formally amend the Senate bill discussed Wednesday.
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The bill, as written now, would let the governor, rather than the current part-time board, pick the director of DHEC. Subcommittee members said Wednesday they plan to take out the provision allowing the governor to do that. The bill technically would remain alive, but would make only minor changes to the agency's management.
DHEC, South Carolina's sixth-largest agency, is under fire for what critics say is a willingness to accommodate state legislators and industry at the expense of the environment and, sometimes, public health. The agency's job is to safeguard the environment and health.
A series of stories in The State newspaper last year chronicled a litany of missteps at DHEC, including failure to protect waterways from toxic pollutants and communities from mega garbage dumps. State lawmakers think so much of DHEC commissioner Earl Hunter that they used a budget proviso two years ago to try to protect his job from any attempts by the governor to have him fired, The State reported.
The newspaper later found dozens of examples of lawmakers contacting the department about environmental permits, enforcement actions or other matters involving constituents. Among those contacting DHEC were Medical Affairs subcommittee members Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, Danny Verdin, R-Laurens, and Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg. Each said he was not trying to tell DHEC what to do.
Ann Timberlake, director of the Columbia-based Conservation Voters of South Carolina, said Wednesday she was disappointed with the Senate panel's lack of interest in changes she believes are vital to protect the environment.
The subcommittee allowed only Hunter - who opposes putting DHEC's director in the governor's Cabinet - to speak at the meeting. While the panel took written public comments, it chose not to let citizens and interest groups explain in the meeting their positions on the legislation. Slightly more than half of the more than 50 people commenting in writing said changes are needed at DHEC.
"It was like watching the fox guard the hen house today," Timberlake said after the meeting. "I guess the idea that senators might give up their leverage over DHEC and over the DHEC commissioner was maybe too much to ask."
Opponents of the DHEC revamp include some of the state's most influential business groups, whose members receive environmental permits from the agency. Critics of changing DHEC note Gov. Mark Sanford's recent troubles and say the governor would have too much power with direct control. He now appoints the board members, but has little direct authority after they are seated.
Verdin, who chairs the committee, said he favored creating a Cabinet-level position to run DHEC, but there was little consensus on the panel to do that.
Still, he introduced a proposal to improve the auditing process at DHEC and for board members to have more expertise on health and the environment.
Sen. John Courson, one of two senators who introduced the DHEC Cabinet bill, said he's glad the panel is looking to improve qualifications for DHEC board members, but dropping plans to give the governor more control is contrary to the intent of his bill.
"It defeats the purpose," Courson, R-Richland, said, adding that letting the governor run DHEC would reduce political pressure on the agency.