COLUMN: What the man from Mars would think

  • Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2013 9:54 a.m.

COLUMBIA — If a visitor from Mars tried to guess South Carolina’s most recent public policy tsunamis by perusing the 350 bills that our legislators just had to file before the 2013 General Assembly convened Tuesday (I know; I know ... I’m trying to make a point), he might conclude that we had been assaulted by a wave of high taxes, an upsurge in violent crimes and a crisis of overextended stays in our prisons.

If he focused instead on the score of bills that actually contain new ideas, the picture would be a bit more accurate: Something went terribly wrong with our elections. We’re under an identity-theft assault. And it takes too long to get a divorce.

OK, so he’d be wrong about that last one. That’s just the latest of Rep. Walt McLeod’s out-of-left-field proposals: Let couples get a no-fault divorce after just 150 days’ separation – a liberalized version of the normal six-month liberalization proposals – rather than making them wait a whole year.

But we are facing an identity-theft assault, several things did go terribly wrong with our elections, and if they don’t always have the right ideas, or ever have comprehensive ideas, our legislators do have a large number of ideas about how to respond.

They do not have a large number of ideas about the other item topping their to-do list: overhauling our ethics law. Only one bill, S.133 by Sen. Vincent Sheheen, proposes to let someone besides legislators review ethics allegations against legislators. That bill and a smattering of others also try to increase the amount of information public officials must report about their sources of income.

It only takes one bill to become law, but that doesn’t usually stop legislators from filing multiple versions of the same one, so they can brag that they did. The fact that they haven’t done this with the fall’s top campaign issue suggests that most are content to wait for all those overlapping ethics study panels to make recommendations. That’s good if the panels make good recommendations that the Legislature is willing to adopt, not so good if they fritter away the whole session studying a problem we already understand.

What we don’t understand so well is what to do about the nation’s largest-ever government data breach, so even if you combined all the bills that aim to do something, the response would fall far short of complete. Several bills would provide state-paid credit monitoring beyond this year, or give tax credits to people who can afford the up-front cost of purchasing the service themselves; Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter proposes to reimburse people for actual losses due to identity theft (H.3031). None, though, even tries to address how to secure our computer networks – which I’d like to believe is a sign of maturity, suggesting that our legislators are resisting their normal tendency to provide all the answers before they even know the questions.

I lost count of the number of bills Democrats filed to allow early voting. There’s one Republican proposal, from Rep. Alan Clemmons (he of photo ID fame). H.3176 doesn’t offer as long an early voting period as they want (just seven days) or make it as convenient (one site per county), but Democrats would be wise to get behind it. The bill, which also eliminates the scourge of straight-ticket voting, strikes a smart balance between Republicans’ opposition to any early voting (other than the senior-citizen option, which we call absentee voting and which Republicans are increasingly aggressive about promoting) and Democrats’ desire for a much too open window for casting ballots.

Far less impressive is the 42-page election bill Clemmons says he spent two years drafting. H.3197 would (drumroll please) ... move the State Election Commission into the secretary of state’s office.

That’s it. For 42 pages.

It would not get the political parties out of the business of candidate filing; it wouldn’t even perform the simple task of cleaning up the requirement that nonincumbents turn in a duplicate copy of an electronically filed economic-disclosure statement in order to have their names on the ballot, as this year’s ballot debacle demonstrated we need to do. It would not get the shadowy, unaccountable county election commissions out of the business of running elections, or legislative delegations out of the business of controlling but not controlling those panels, as this year’s Richland County election fiasco demonstrated we need to do.

It is, in short, a solution that not only is searching desperately for a problem but also ignores the actual problems whose solutions are so abundantly clear.

Sen. Gerald Malloy would fix the problem of political parties performing official government tasks, giving candidate filing duties to election officials (S.70). And Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin has fast-tracked his bill (S.2) to clear up the duplicate paperwork problem.

Putting the state in charge of state elections is a different matter. Bills by Sheheen and Rep. James Smith look like they’d do that (S.135 and H.3198), but a closer reading suggests otherwise: The state elections director would have “general supervisory authority” over county elections directors. Only she couldn’t hire them. Or fire them. The political hacks running the county election commissions would retain those powers. So “general” apparently means “no.”

From the best-of-intentions department comes Sen. Chip Campsen’s S.31, which would prohibit county legislative delegations from having any say over who serves as county election director. Unfortunately, we know how this story ends: Local legislators would simply pass more unconstitutional single-county laws (like the one that created the Richland County mess) that exempt themselves from this law.

Other notables from the pre-filed bills:

• Sen. Kevin Bryant continues to channel John C. Calhoun, proposing bills to ignore the U.S. Constitution by implicitly nullifying Supreme Court decisions on abortion and overtly nullifying ObamaCare and federal gun laws (S.83, 85, 87 and 102). You might recall how that turned out last time.

• Only two legislators, Reps. Wendell Gilliard (H.3118) and Don Bowen (H.3121), filed bills to ban texting while driving. Which might make you think that wasn’t something the Legislature needed to do.

If you were a Martian.

Cindi Ross Scoppe is an associate editor with The State newspaper in Columbia.

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