2017-03-20 / Columns


S.C. House oversteps its bounds

The South Carolina House of Representative’s decision last Tuesday to get rid of a Cabinet officer exemplifies why improved governance is so hard to achieve in a legislative state. The House voted to fire Leroy Smith, director of the state Department of Public Safety, through a legislative maneuver that would take away funding for his salary in the next state budget.

The explanation? Neither Gov. Henry McMaster nor his predecessor Nikki Haley has been willing to dismiss Mr. Smith, despite the urging of his critics, including those in the Legislature. But Mr. Smith answers to the governor, and his employment should be up to the state’s chief executive, not an option for legislative action.

Lawmakers voted 76-20 Tuesday to eliminate the director’s position by reducing the agency’s funding for the slot. When the new budget goes into effect on July 1, Mr. Smith will lose his job, assuming the amendment remains in the budget.

Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, initiated the action, criticizing Mr. Smith for micromanaging the agency, and for failing to reduce the number of highway deaths in the state. Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, says legislative action is the only alternative given the unwillingness of the governor to fire Mr. Smith.

Actually, the only reasonable option is to let the governor manage his own Cabinet and its agency directors. Lawmakers have more than enough to do without meddling in the governor’s responsibilities.

Mr. Pitts, a retired law officer, contends that Mr. Smith has to go because of low morale in the DPS, which includes the state highway patrol.

If legislators have information about Mr. Smith’s shortcomings they should share it with the governor and let him make the call. Mr. McMaster has been in office less than two months, following Mrs. Haley’s decision to take a presidential appointment at the United Nations. The Legislature’s action isn’t merely illadvised but precipitate, as well. So far, Gov. McMaster is standing behind his DPS director.

The Cabinet system has taken root and grown over the last 25 years because of a prior lack of accountability. In some cases agencies have been dispatched to the governor’s office in response to problems that the Legislature hasn’t wanted to deal with. For example, lawmakers turned over the Department of Motor Vehicles to then-Gov. Mark Sanford, who quickly improved the perennially troubled agency. The Legislature decided that the Employment Security Commission should be a Cabinet position after the agency, mainly directed by ex-legislators, ran up a $900 million debt.

Still, legislators really don’t want to let go of their authority, as the backdoor attempt to dismiss Mr. Smith demonstrates.

The DPS director should be held accountable for problems in his agency, but it’s the governor’s job to handle the matter, not the Legislature’s. The Senate should take a stand and reject the House budget amendment.

— The (Charleston) Post and Courier

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