OPINION: Grading the 2018 Legislature: incomplete on nuclear, an A, C-, D+ and a big fat F

May 14–COLUMBIA, S.C. — Columbia, S.C.

I SPENT Thursday morning writing a column grading the 2018 legislative session, and let’s just say the grade wasn’t pretty. I knew there was still technically a tiny possibility that the Senate could give final approval to a House-passed reform measure that would cast the session in a whole new light, but I really didn’t think it would happen.

And then it happened.

With minutes to go before the session ended, the Senate voted to put a question on the November ballot about letting the governor appoint the superintendent of education.

This change does nothing to address the other ways in which the Legislature holds super-sized power in South Carolina: It will still elect the members of the Supreme Court. Still split control of the executive branch among six independently elected officials, which diluted the power of the governor, so that, like the court, he’s not a co-equal to the Legislature. Still maintains a stranglehold on cities and counties. But if voters approve the constitutional change, it will be the most significant step toward making the executive an effective check on legislative power since … forever. So on this important topic, solid A.

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That vote also improves the Legislature’s otherwise abysmal performance on public education, since letting the governor appoint the superintendent would be such a game-changer — not only forcing governors to own public education but also giving them more effective tools to improve it. Not in the short term, of course, since the change wouldn’t occur until 2023.

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But even such a huge accomplishment doesn’t make up for all the failures.

Job 1 for the Legislature is to make sure poor kids get a decent education. There’s no magic wand to get kids more interested in learning or the best teachers more interested in teaching the students who need them most. But the only piece of this massive puzzle that legislators even talked seriously about addressing was a burgeoning teacher shortage that is expected to be exasperated when a popular state benefit ends this summer. A temporary fix for that tiny little piece of that one part of the larger problem — which has some long-term implications that could damage the State Retirement System — is in the House’s version of the state budget bill, which is in a House-Senate conference committee.

Average that huge chance for improvement starting in five years with the failure on all other education efforts, and you get, oh, let’s be generous and say a C. Minus.

The Legislature gets an incomplete — with the possibility of bringing that up to a C+ — on its most pressing problem: cleaning up the mess from the abandoned decade-long effort by SCE&G and Santee Cooper to build two new nuclear reactors. Several measures are in House-Senate conference committees, and some could be approved when lawmakers return for brief wrap-up sessions later this month and in June: temporarily reducing or eliminating SCE&G’s nuclear surcharge; cutting the legs out from under SCE&G’s efforts to keep collecting the surcharge; and repealing the Base Load Review Act, which created this whole mess, as well as an earlier law that required the state Office of Regulatory Staff to look out for utilities’ best interests.

But several other problems that helped cause the disaster won’t be fixed: Santee Cooper will continue to operate without any state controls, its board members able to raise rates without any oversight, and the governor unable to remove those members unless they do things that could violate the law. Regulated utilities will still be allowed to donate to legislators’ campaigns, employ them and under some circumstances give them gifts. A legislative panel that was too cozy with the utilities will retain oversight of the state’s broken regulatory system. Legislators still won’t get independent explanations of the constitutional and other potential pitfalls of complex legislation. Santee Cooper and other government boards will still find it easy to hide their secrets behind “attorney-client privilege” and other trumped-up claims — even when those secrets cost the public hundreds of millions of dollars.

A whirlwind of activity in the last few days of the session produced a few other good laws — most significantly repealing the law that lets police charge students with sassing a teacher. But while I occasionally add in topical issues when they’re really huge — like a state-government-enabled and -encouraged nuclear construction project that consumed $10 billion before it was abandoned — my to-do list focuses on the big-picture, long-term problems in our state.

One of those is our broken tax system. Our antiquated, loophole-riddled, special-interest-driven tax system needs to be replaced with a well-balanced system (like a well-balanced portfolio) that has few loopholes and thus lower rates. But while I held out silly hope that the House’s latest tax-reform effort would go somewhere, it didn’t. On the other hand, legislators ignored the governor’s ill-conceived campaign for income-tax cuts, and they didn’t make any other significant piecemeal changes. So maybe we should give them a little credit for not making things significantly worse: D+.

The final biggie is ethics reform. Sen. John Courson has been suspended all session, awaiting criminal trial; convicted former Rep. Rick Quinn admitted to doing a lot of things that he insists were perfectly legal — but which shouldn’t be. Yet the Legislature did nothing to clear up significant questions about what is and isn’t allowed, much less give regulators better tools to detect activities that clearly are illegal. A solid F.

This article provided by NewsEdge.