Legislators opened the 2013 session in January with a hefty list of crises that demanded an immediate response:
The ethics law was exposed as a self-protection racket for the political class; computer hackers broke into the ill-secured data system of the state Revenue Department and lifted the unencrypted data of more than 6.4 million South Carolinians; 250 candidates were kicked off the ballot because no one noticed a new law that applied only to non-incumbents; the unaccountable elections office in Richland County deployed too few voting machines, forcing thousands of voters to endure waits of up to seven hours, while untold others left without casting a ballot; video gambling interests sold several judges on a ploy to revive their outlawed industry.
All of that was on top of the perennially ignored list of problems that plague our state: a governmental structure that diffuses power so no one can wield it to the public good; a loophole-riddled tax system that can’t meet our needs, much less our wants, and a budgetary process that can’t distinguish between the two; an education system that can’t educate all of our kids, and a political system that refuses to make the obvious improvements to that system.
Lawmakers did quickly close the video-gambling loophole, and just before they closed the regular session on Thursday, they eliminated the election filing disparity (and, more importantly, stripped political parties of the power to act as state officials, whether they know what they’re doing or not). But that’s it.
There’s still a chance that they could dismantle the Budget and Control Board, giving the governor more power to act like a governor and the Legislature a mandate to act like a legislature, when they return to Columbia later this month to tie up loose ends. And we must hope for that, because it’s really the only chance we have left of salvaging a simply dreadful session.
Theoretically, lawmakers could spend our money wisely, since negotiators are still trying to work out a deal on the budget. Realistically, that seems far-fetched. In fact, the defund-the-school crowd has made such strides that it’s not inconceivable that we could be looking at the second year in a row when lawmakers can’t pass a budget by July 1.
There’s not a legitimate excuse for lawmakers going home without addressing the rampant problems exposed by the Richland County voting debacle. Yet there were no serious efforts to make the election board accountable to someone, either the County Council or, preferably, and in all counties, the State Election Commission; and efforts to implement early voting were bogged down by purely partisan disputes over how long it would last and how it would affect absentee voting.
There’s even less justification for the failure to create a central authority to set and enforce IT security standards across the government, rather than allowing scores of independent, often unaccountable, agencies to decide how, if at all, to protect our personal data.
Some would argue that given the fixations they entertained this year — from Obamacare “nullification” to guns in bars to empowering people to divert their tax payments to private schools — we should be relieved that lawmakers didn’t accomplish more. And they did make enough progress on ethics reform and cyber security that they might manage to act early next session.
But the outlines of what needed to be done to address the crises have been clear for months, and the need to act was obvious. So at half-time of a two-year session, we have every right to be disappointed.