Hicks column: Governor candidates make promises only the Legislature can keep

These are just a few of the things South Carolina governor candidates have promised to do this year.

Get your swindled money back from conniving state utilities. Defund Planned Parenthood and stop all abortion in the state. Cut taxes. Jam cellphone signals around prisons. Take politics out of road funding. Shoot snakes. OK, maybe that was just implied.

We’ve heard a lot of tough talk and bold promises during the recent Republican and Democratic gubernatorial debates. To hear these candidates tell it, they can do almost anything and everything.

This is called the courtship phase, that point in a relationship where someone will tell you anything just to get what they want. In this case, your vote.

Candidates can get away with promising the moon, or refund checks, in advance of the June 12 primaries for one simple reason: Few people know how much power a South Carolina governor actually has.

Which is, not much.

So, no matter who wins, prepare to be disappointed.

Power outage

At the GOP gubernatorial debate Wednesday night, John Warren and Catherine Templeton promised to stop SCE&G from charging customers for those shuttered nuclear power plants.

Right on, right?

Oh, but if it were only that easy. Gov. Henry McMaster has tried to stop those payments since last year but can’t get the General Assembly to cooperate.

House members voted to eliminate the charges but the Senate has only agreed to a partial rollback. The General Assembly is at an impasse.

McMaster has used the governor’s bully pulpit about as well as anyone could: He has repeatedly threatened to veto anything that allows SCANA and Santee Cooper to charge even a plug nickel for those plants.

Can’t draw a bigger line in the sand than that. Still, nothing’s happened. Why?

Because the Legislature controls this state.

Back in the 1890s, Gov. Ben Tillman was so worried a black man might one day win his job, he rewrote the whole state constitution to distribute all power to lawmakers.

Since then, only a few governors have actually had any real power – Fritz Hollings, Carroll Campbell among them. The rest, not so much.

By law, governors get to make speeches, veto legislation and reverse highway lanes during storms (or catastrophic bridge failures).

They get to live in a very nice downtown Columbia home, can call the Legislature into emergency session and have some powers of appointment.

But even lawmakers get a say in many of those.

That’s about it for gubernatorial powers. Many end up as ambassadors or, at best, economic development recruiters.

Oh, they can submit their own state budget proposal, and often do. Lawmakers use them as doorstops.

Applause lines

In the 2002 GOP gubernatorial primary, there were seven candidates – and one night nearly all of them showed up to stump at an anti-abortion group’s charity dinner in Columbia.

One after another, the candidates told the audience if they were elected governor, they’d outlaw abortion. Candidate Mark Sanford spoke last.

As governor, Sanford said, you don’t really have any control over national abortion policy. He was right.

But guess who got the most modest applause line that night?

People want to hear what they want to hear, and candidates like to give it to them. All too often, however, that drifts into the realm of complete fantasy. Like the notion that a governor can jam cellphone signals, do pest control at the Statehouse – or cut taxes.

At a Democratic gubernatorial debate earlier this month, Phil Noble said, if elected, he’d take politics out of state road funding.

That’s a great idea – even better, in the long run, than cutting off the SCE&G spigot. Wouldn’t it be great if the state distributed transportation dollars based on, say, traffic counts?

Trouble is, folks from both parties have tried to do that for years. But the Legislature controls the purse strings and it is dominated by rural interests.

So we get paved cow fields in the countryside, gridlock in the cities – and a great talking point for political candidates. But don’t be fooled.

Ultimately, all a governor can do about any of this is gripe.

Just like the rest of us.

This article provided by NewsEdge.