Solutions to the arrogance of SC Politics as Usual
By Phil Noble
Nothing is more infuriating than seeing another news story about the arrogance, incompetence or corruption that characterizes politics as usual in South Carolina. There were three such stories in only the last few weeks.
We should all be ‘mad as hell.’
What’s most infuriating is that none of this needs to happen and there are a few very simple solutions to preventing many of these problems or fixing them once they occur.
Today, what passes for politics as usual in South Carolina prevents the needed reform.
Let’s begin with the arrogance. In the last few weeks, a Post and Courier investigation revealed that over the last five years, the Clemson and Medical University of South Carolina Board of Directors spend vast sums of money on themselves for fancy dinners, luxury hotel rooms, vintage wine and other personal indulgences.
Clemson’s Board spent the most, nearly $750,000. The expenses listed include entertaining themselves to the tune of over $100,000 at Clemson’s out-of-state football games and dinners in expensive restaurants ranging from $3,000 to $7,000 each.
Though the aggregate number for Clemson was big, the reports did not detail all the specific expenditures as they did for MUSC. While the Clemson expenses are embarrassing, the MUSC expenses are simply outrageous. The MUSC Board spent $560,000 on themselves and another $290,000 on the Board of Visitors for a total of $850,000.
The specifics are as bad as the totals. To name just a few: a $37,430 Christmas banquet with $5,600 for cocktails at Charleston Place, a $6,400 farewell dinner described as ‘unapologetically indulgent’ and multiple $160 a bottle Barolo wines – Italy’s ‘king of wines’ – and on and on it goes.
There are 16 Board members so their expenses average out to $35,000 per person. Usually, the state limits members of state boards to a $35 daily allowance and $25 a day for meals and standard mileage.
And how did the MUSC Board Chair respond when confronted with this scandal? He said there would be “a review of the board spending policies…” How about just refunding the money?
Next is incompetence. In 1988, the Feds mandated that within ten years every state must develop a computerized system to track wages of ‘dead beat dads’ who refuse to pay their alimony and child support. By 2008, SC was the only state that had not complied and now – 26 years after the original requirement – we still don’t have it done. As a result, we have been socked with $135 million in fines (some have been paid by the vendors) on top of the $145 million that has been spent on a system that does not work.
According to one recent published report, “the cost over the next six fiscal years to finally bring this system operational stands at roughly $200 million.” That’s a total of $400 million – if, and it’s a big if, they manage to get it finished on time and on budget. Don’t hold your breath.
There has been repeated speculation that the reasons some of the vendors were chosen to (not) perform these contracts had as much more to do with their connections to powerful legislators and special interest as with their technological competence. Remember, 49 others states got it right a long time ago.
Now let’s move on to corruption. One of the basic revenue sources that funds the expenses of state government is the sales tax. For the last year that data is available, we got $2.4 billion from sales tax but we lost more than $3 billion in sales tax exemption…. i.e. we gave away more than we got.
South Carolina has 213 sales and service tax exemptions and we exempt 62% of all items sold in our state from taxation, leaving only 38% of items bought and sold subject to tax. Put another way, we have a Swiss cheese sales tax system – there’s more holes than cheese.
Now most would argue that some of these exemptions like those on food and medicine are a good thing but the real problem are the many special interest tax exemptions. In 2010, for example, a commission appointed by the Republicans recommended repealing, amending or modifying more than 60 tax exemptions, which cut state revenues by $3 billion a year. Legislators never acted on most of those recommendations.
And virtually every one of these exemptions were the result of a paid special interest lobbyist working their way on the legislature to get the special tax break for their client. Add in the related corruption of special interest campaign contributions, consulting contracts and legal retainers to legislators and… well you get the picture. It’s called politics as usual.
So, what are the solutions? No reforms will solve all the problems but let me begin with four simple, specific suggestions:
- Require all members of state boards and commissions to pay their own travel, food and lodging expenses above $2,000 a year. Remember, it’s supposed to be about public service not public profit.
- Eliminate special interest Political Action Committee contributions to all candidate and political parties and party organizations.
- Require legislators to release the names of all their clients that do business with state and local government and how much they are paid by these clients.
- Require legislators to abstain from doing business with state and local government. You can be a legislator or you can do business with state and local government – pick one, you shouldn’t do both.
Will the legislature pass a tough ethics reform bill with these requirements? Does the expression ‘when pigs fly’ come to mind?
But, individually legislators could voluntarily make these disclosures and agree to these limitations. They could do it tomorrow – if they wanted to. Will any legislators do this…think pigs again.
The types of usual arrogance, incompetence and corruption as detailed above are – well, the usual arrogance, incompetence and corruption that plagues Statehouse politics.
It does not have to be this way.