In what may be the most misgoverned state in the nation, South Carolina's governor and General Assembly truly outdid themselves this year. Blame it on politics. Blame it on the economy. But don't assume there is any accountable adult willing to stand up and take responsibility.
The nation is in the worst economic downturn in 75 years. While some states are faring better than others, South Carolina is suffering under the third-highest unemployment rate in the country. Yet much of our economic grief was self-inflicted.
South Carolina has a monstrously unbalanced tax system, which relies too much on sales tax. It works well enough when the economy is humming along and everybody is spending freely, but in times like these, there is not enough going into the public coffers, and the result means that thousands of state employees get laid off or furloughed. Yet this was a chance the governor and General Assembly were happy to take in 2006, when they overhauled the state tax code to give property tax breaks to some of the richest people in the state. The Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and many others warned that the new tax structure was a disaster waiting to happen. But there were no adults in the Statehouse with the power to rein in this folly.
There should be some satisfaction in knowing that one of the groups that got furloughed was the General Assembly itself. To save money, lawmakers and their staffs were sent home for several weeks over the past legislative session, and a lot of public business did not get resolved.
But that was only one of the crises the solons had to contend with in 2009. Another was the governor and his overt, opportunistic, intransigent political ambition.
Gov. Mark Sanford — in a performance that has earned him nationwide scorn and the praise of far right-wing Republicans — has refused to accept $700 billion in federal stimulus money directed toward education and law enforcement. With the second worst public education system in the nation, hundreds of teachers being laid off across the state, college being priced out of many young people's future, Sanford has chosen to use the issue to elevate his national profile and his 2012 presidential prospects.
The rift between Sanford and the leaders of his own party over taking federal stimulus money has gone from ugly to vicious. Senate Majority Leader Glenn McConnell and House Speaker Bobby Harrell have publicly torn into Sanford.
In a guest column that Harrell wrote for The State, he said that Sanford "is in essence telling our citizens who have no bread to just eat cake instead."
McConnell's open letter to the governor, published in The Post and Courier, said, "Time and again, you have failed to address problems in a constructive manner and proactively work with the Legislature to find solutions. For seven years now, on issue after issue, you have chosen to make headlines rather than to make headway and to create problems rather than to solve them."
Last week the General Assembly passed legislation requiring Sanford to take the stimulus money. The governor responded with a federal lawsuit, saying the Legislature's actions would have "far-reaching implications for future governors."
Excuse me, but I thought all true conservatives hated the federal courts for thwarting popular will and overturning the laws of state and federal legislatures. So much for "strict constructionism." And one more thing: Who's paying for this lawsuit anyway?
As this legal drama plays out in the final days of the legislative session, we are treated to the annual sight of Sanford vetoing dozens of budget items, only to have the legislators override said vetoes with the speed and efficiency of fast-food giant McDonald's.
In the midst of this rancor and the abbreviated legislative session, key pieces of legislation did not make it through the General Assembly. That is good news and bad news.
The good news is that bills authorizing voter ID, school vouchers, and a 24-hour abortion waiting period ran out of time. The bad news is that time also ran out on a cigarette tax increase. This was to be the year that we finally raise the cigarette tax from seven cents a pack — the nation's lowest — and use the 50 cent increase to fund health care for the poor. Too bad it didn't pass. And the poor probably got screwed again when the Legislature passed a weak and watered-down last-minute bill to curb the abuses of payday lenders. This predatory industry should be put out of the state, not rapped on the knuckles.
Here's my suggestion: Let's send the General Assembly to time-out until January and sit Gov. Sanford in the corner with a dunce cap.