Editorial: Changing government can build engagement
South Carolina can spur greater political engagement by making it easier to be an elected official and instituting greater transparency.
Both are currently lacking in our state, and both likely have some correlation to the lack of political activism by residents.
A recent study by the University of South Carolina Upstate indicates that while the state ranks among the highest in voting, we also rank near the bottom in other forms of political action.
The lack of engagement noted by the study – such as contacting public officials and attending public meetings – can be hard to quantify. However, it’s obvious that the right environment doesn’t fully exist in Columbia to attract qualified candidates or put enough knowledge in the hands of the average South Carolinian.
It’s clear that it’s currently too difficult for the average person to run for political office.
South Carolina has one of the longest legislative sessions in the country – spanning a five month period.
Few residents have enough free time on their hands to want to sign up for that, especially if they have a full-time job. That’s why so many in the legislature are attorneys, who have the leeway to rely on partners to run their firms, or older business owners who can rely on their employees while they’re away.
Shortening the session should open up the spectrum of people who could ultimately manage holding office and working at the same time.
It would also save taxpayers money. A bill sponsored by S.C. Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia, during the last legislative session, for instance, would have saved $420,000 by shortening the session by a month.
It’s a positive sign that local lawmakers, including S.C. Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, and S.C. Senators Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, and Tom Young, R-Aiken, have also pushed for such a reform. But the proposal has never gained traction, and has consequently died in the legislature.
State lawmakers also tried to pass changes this legislative session that could have spurred more people to run for office by instituting a pay increase. But the back door way they pursued it ultimately left too many people soured by the idea by the time the session ended.
Lawmakers didn’t pursue it the conventional way through proposing a bill. They instead tacked it onto the budget through an increase in in-district expenses.
The stipend increase would have added $12,000 in pay to each legislator, creating an overall cost of $2 million for the taxpayers.
The S.C. Senate ultimately made the right choice, however, by voting 10-32, without debate, to uphold S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto of the stipend increase.
The legislature isn’t the only one operating somewhat heavy handedly.
The S.C. Budget and Control Board, which was essentially renamed recently, can influence the purse strings in our state without enough accountability.
While lawmakers have made moves to eliminate the board’s influence, a lot of their power has merely been transferred to the State Fiscal Accountability Authority agency’s board, which is made up of the same people on the Budget and Control Board: the governor, the treasurer, the comptroller general and the chairmen of Senate Finance and House Ways and Means.
Too much power is still vested in too few people with such a setup, and while their meetings are public, too much is left to slide under the radar compared to the legislature.
The agency has the power to negotiate contracts and can spend more than they’re appropriated.
This adds to the clear need to continue to fight for government restructuring, and make sure our state operates as transparently as possible.
If residents knew all of what happens in state government, perhaps we would have greater involvement, and likely, greater accountability.