In an almost eerie set your clock by it sort of way, the debate over South Carolina’s roadways is once again a headline making topic out of Columbia as lawmakers filibuster and debate over a funding bill while drivers slowly beat their vehicles into scrap metal.
At least it looks as if some progress will be made this session in the Senate, even if the fix will not be long term where spending is concerned. But the prospect of any legislation aside, it begs the question: Why is it taking so long and what is there to fight about?
If you talk with your legislator, I would venture to guess you are going to hear about the state income tax and gas tax and the impact on families and working people and their personal budgets. Most will tell you the debate is over the high tax burden already placed upon the working man.
Me, I don’t think that’s it at all.
Money isn’t the issue, or at least it wasn’t until the last five years. After five years of infighting and disagreements with no real progress being made, the decaying system of our transit system is now further behind.
The two big hurdles are control of the Department of Transportation board of commissioners and the power of the state Infrastructure bank.
As of now, the state Legislature is responsible for appointing commissioners to the board and the Infrastructure bank can create projects not under DOT’s control, allotting funding and the ability to cherry pick where those projects go with zero oversight from the state or voters.
The ability to appoint commissioners, after having decided and apportioning the department’s budget, seems a little skewed.
First of all, controlling who is on the board and controlling the purse strings is too much power in the hands of one group. There are no checks and balances in place under our present system, which allows for the opportunity for developing a “fiefdom” mentality. When your job depends on votes, throwing a bone to your constituents is required to continue in your capacity as a legislator.
This is the type of appointment favors are traded over. I am not implying that all those in the Legislature engage in this type of power peddling, but there has to be a reason for fighting so hard to retain both the money and control of the board.
Let’s face it, trading appointments for monetary or some other form of support has been stock and trade in American politics since this nation was founded. But that doesn’t make it ethical or right in any way.
The Infrastructure Bank itself is another animal altogether, one most South Carolinians most likely don’t even know exists. The purpose of the bank, stolen straight from their website, is: “Purpose of Bank: To select and assist in financing major qualified projects (exceeding $100 M) by providing loans and other financial assistance … for constructing and improving highway and transportation facilities necessary for public purposes including economic development.”
The act which was passed in 1997 was intended to aid the DOT with these larger projects but the structure of the organization and how it does business leaves it completely independent, creating projects which have not been accounted for by the state’s budget, adding a cost to the taxpayers which, as we have seen, runs up a tab which can’t be paid.
So, why would legislators fight over maintaining this system?
None are outwardly crying to the heavens, but restructuring the bank’s ability to do independent business without DOT input has been going on for 19 years to this point, so someone wants to keep it around no matter how fiscally unsound it is.
Once again, this is the “fiefdom” mentality, and major infrastructure projects located along the coast are prime examples of how business gets done with the bank in place. The construction of infrastructure that could never be afforded under the state’s budget can still be completed with the maintenance passed to the state, which means the opportunity to push projects for votes and support is possible.
It seems the issue with meaningful roads legislation and a true ethics reform are quite similar.
When you can control the money, control who handles the business, and keep anyone from investigating you from an outside agency, you have the power. And power can be quite intoxicating.
D. C. Moody is a staff writer for The Easley Progress, The Pickens Sentinel and Powdersville Post and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper’s opinion.