Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:
Increasing teacher pay
Teacher salaries in South Carolina need a boost, but it must be done in a fiscally responsible way. The average South Carolina teacher was paid $48,375 at the end of the 2013 school, nearly $7,000 less than the national average.
A bill proposed by likely Democratic candidate for governor Vincent Sheheen will raise the salaries of public school teachers to thankfully match that level.
Paying teachers on an appropriate level, of course, doesn't guarantee improvement in the classroom.
However, having adequate pay that at least mirrors the national average should help attract teachers that may otherwise leave or not even enter the profession or go to another state that pays better.
State law requires the minimum salary paid to South Carolina teachers to match the Southeastern average, but the General Assembly routinely suspends the law, according to The State newspaper.
Sheheen's bill still needs to be fleshed out, but he's proposed stretching the salary increases over a number of years to create less of a financial strain. By spanning the bumps in salary over several years, the state can help ensure it meets the national average responsibly. Teachers last received a statewide raise in 2012 when lawmakers approved a 2 percent increase.
The salary increase will obviously not mean much if it's not met with other reforms that will help improve our state's education system.
That's where reforms introduced by S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley come into play. The governor outlined a comprehensive education reform package this week aimed at improving the classrooms across the state, but especially in rural communities.
Combined with Sheheen's proposal, Haley's reforms can hopefully move our state out of the education basement when it comes to national rankings.
The governor's initiative calls for $156 million in funding for the state's education efforts. Some of the details of that price tag are expected to be released as part of the governor's annual state budget recommendation, which is also expected to be unveiled this month.
As details emerge, it should be a priority to ensure an appropriate funding plan also exists.
Sadly, two of the issues returning state lawmakers desperately need to address are issues that should have been settled last year.
Both ethics reform and restructuring of state government have been high priorities for years, but both had failed to gain traction in the Legislature until last year. And, at the end of the 2013 session, both measures had advanced almost halfway toward passage, only to fail in the last moments of the session.
In the case of ethics reform, that might be a blessing in disguise. A watered-down bill was passed by the House but, while the Senate bill improved on that effort, it, too, did not go far enough in requiring public disclosure from lawmakers regarding their sources of income, in establishing an independent ethics commission to investigate complaints and in providing the means to enforce ethics rules.
After the failure to pass the Senate bill, Senate President Pro Tempere John Courson appointed a bipartisan panel to fashion a new proposal for when lawmakers return this month. We hope a new Senate bill will go farther in both requiring transparency regarding where lawmakers get their money and in establishing independent oversight to ensure that they follow the rules.
The state's current ethics laws were last revised in 1991 following the Operation Lost Trust scandal. These standards are entirely inadequate. They fail to require lawmakers to report sources of income for themselves, their families or their business associates, nor money they receive from lobbyists.
In addition, lawmakers essentially police themselves through separate House and Senate ethics committees. As a result, campaign disclosure reports are only rarely reviewed, and rules governing campaign contributions and use of that money are enforced only when complaints arise.
Last year's Senate bill offered a promising alternative: an independent ethics commission appointed by the Legislature and the governor to investigate alleged violations and report them to the two ethics committees. While we question the need for separate ethics committees, an independent commission would be welcome.
Any bill also should strengthen income reporting requirements for lawmakers. The residents of South Carolina deserve to know who is paying our elected officials and who could potentially be influencing them.
Restructuring of state government also is long overdue. With its Budget and Control Board, South Carolina's state government is the most archaic in the nation.
The board consist of the governor, the state treasurer, the comptroller general, the Senate Finance Committee chairman and the state House Ways and Means Committee chairman. It runs much of the executive branch of the government.
South Carolina is the only state in the nation with such a cumbersome system. With so many competing interests represented on the board, it ensures that no one will be entirely accountable for running the government.
In this state, the governor does not even have the authority to appoint most boards and commissions. The Legislature retains the right to make those appointments, again making authority so dispersed that no one really is accountable.
Last year, the state Senate easily passed a bill to dismantle the Budget and Control Board. But the House dawdled long enough to stall the bill as the session ended.
When lawmakers reconvene Tuesday, they need to revisit the proposal to ax the Budget and Control Board. In addition they need to enact other proposals to streamline government, including turning over authority to the governor to appoint members of boards and commissions.
The governor also should be permitted to appoint state constitutional officers, such as the superintendent of education, who now are elected. This would require approval by voters of constitutional amendments, but lawmakers need to vote to put those amendments on the ballot.
State lawmakers have been reluctant to cede power to the executive branch, but failure to both give governors the authority to serve as a real chief executive - or to hold them accountable - is a disservice to the residents of this state.
While these tasks should have been completed last year, we'll give lawmakers credit for a successful session if they manage to take care of them this year.
Alter state regulations carefully
South Carolina has begun to lower its unemployment rate thanks to new and expanding businesses. But it is doing so with no thanks to excessive, duplicative and confusing regulations.
According to the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), of the 25 most troublesome issues for small businesses, South Carolina ranks in five:
It is No. 4 in uncertainty over government actions; No. 5 in unreasonableness of government actions; No. 16 in state and local paperwork; No. 20 in dealing with tax agencies; and No. 25 in understanding regulatory environments.
Indeed, the New York University School of Law Institute for Police Integrity in 2010 gave South Carolina a “D” for its regulatory review process.
So Gov. Nikki Haley's decision in February to establish a task force to review regulations and recommend improvements was right in line with her “jobs, jobs, jobs” mission.
Now it will be up to the governor and her cabinet directors or, in some cases, the Legislature to consider the task force's suggestions. They should study them carefully and change what ought to be changed.
They should also, however, refrain from being overly hasty in loosening regulations that protect the environment from harmful business practices or protect the public from threats to their health.
For example, it makes sense to rethink a regulation that holds a small-scale honey producer, who sells directly to consumers, to the same standards as large-scale honey companies.
But the task force also recommends changes in the Department of Health and Environmental Control's regulations regarding solid waste facilities. That is a ticklish subject often cast as free enterprise versus residents' well-being. In this strong pro-business climate, residents could lose out if the state isn't careful.
Indeed, Coastal Conservation League Executive Director Dana Beach, a member of the task force, called for much more study before paring back environmental regulations.
The committee's findings, released in November, were drawn after studying 3,122 regulations across 22 state agencies. Most of the recommendations were to change regulations, but some addressed awkward or unnecessary processes, and three addressed the legislative process.
State lawmakers should pay timely heed to those conclusions as they begin a new legislative session this week.
The task force's work should encourage fixes that would make South Carolina more efficient and friendly to small businesses, without sacrificing the natural resources that make those businesses want to come and stay.