YOUR TURN: “SC Legislature: Off to a Quick Start – In the Wrong Direction” By Phil Noble

Phil Noble

The state Legislature convened in Columbia and quickly went to work. Given the results so far, we would have been better off if they had stayed at home – and there in lies a solution to the problem that has worked in many of other states.

So what critical problem or big issue did they tackle this week? Was it fixing our broken state budget? Or improving education? Or creating jobs?

Nope. None of the above.

Instead, the Senate passed a bill honoring two dead people – Pres. Ronald Reagan and Eartha Kitt, the famed African American singer and actress from the town of North – and then immediately got in a fight about it. As one Senator said, “I fully support recognizing President Reagan without having to diminish his great accomplishments by equating them to the actions of a liberal gay rights activist.”

How many jobs did this create?

Next, they took up debate on a bill to require unemployed people to pass a drug test before they could receive unemployment benefits. You would have thought we settled this issue back in September, when Gov. Haley made a big deal out of claiming that 50% of the applicants at the Savannah River plant failed a drug test. In fact it is less than 1 percent.

As a Post and Courier reporter pointed out, if this bill becomes law, “they could run afoul of the federal government just like two signature pieces of legislation passed last year: Voter ID and immigration reform.” It would seem that intelligent people would quit wasting time passing laws that clearly will not pass federal muster.

What’s curious is that “wasting time” is not an issue for many legislators; they dilly-dally around with unimportant issues and spend time posturing and making speeches that no one really listens to.

Now, don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of good diligent hard working legislators in both parties that sincerely want to do the right thing. But the dirty little secret is that, for many, being in Columbia six months out of the year is a both a pleasure and a perk, and they actively work to stretch it out as long a possible.

The Legislature convenes the first of January each year and usually stays in session about six months, sometimes longer if they get called back to deal with the governor’s vetoes and other special issues. Though officially in session throughout the work week, they generally don’t meet at all on Monday or Friday and they roll in late morning on Tuesday and roll out early afternoon on Thursday.

Why do they stretch it out so long? There are lots of reasons. Some legislators simply enjoy the attention. For others, coming to Columbia makes them feel like big shots in the big city, as they get lots of TLC from their staff, lobbyists and others who are competing for their time and attention.

There is an old saying around the statehouse that describes the session as “three dull days and two glorious nights,” and for too many legislators this is the case. The social calendar of the Legislature is chock full on breakfasts, lunches, dinners and receptions sponsored by special interest groups, lobbyists and even the occasional legitimate citizens’ group. They are so busy that they even have official committees of both the House and Session just to deal with all the invitations they receive.

The legislators love these events for the free food, the open bars, and the fawning attention. For lobbyists, the strategy seems to be to corner the legislators and talk with them about a tax break or other special deal while they are stuffing their faces with liquor and canapes.

And the tasty morsels don’t stop at the buffet line. Though it is said to have improved slightly in recent years, the ratio of blonde highlights to bad comb-overs is still suspiciously high at these Legislative receptions. And no one there seems to mind much one way or the other when one of the latter decides to go into ‘special session’ for the evening with one of the former – after all, (good ol’) boys will be (good ol’) boys, right? Or so says the culture of indolence and indulgence that goes largely unchallenged these days under the Dome in Columbia.

As is often the case, the solution to this is quite simple: limit the time of the legislative session – say, to 60 days every year. This will force the Legislature to take up the important stuff and quit wasting time.

A quick look at other states shows that this is an eminently reasonable solution. For example: Florida is nearly four times as big as South Carolina, yet they only meet 60 days a year. In fact, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures study, 32 state legislatures meet for less time annually than does South Carolina, and four other states only meet every other year.

The old maxim is that work expands to fill the time available. So, let’s shorten the session and force them to get down to serious work.

It will be good for the state and save tax money to boot. And the legislators themselves would probably be a lot better off – healthier, anyway –  if they cut down on the lobbyist-provided food and drink, and got a good night’s sleep back in their own districts once in a while.

Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley. Contact Mr. Noble at phil@SCNewDemocrats.org or www.SCNewDemocrats.org.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the author are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CRESCENT: The Magazine.

To submit an op-ed for CRESCENT’s “Your Turn” section, please email it to input@crescentmag.com.

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