I’ve always thought strange the extent to which we blame South Carolina’s diffusive government on so-called Pitchfork Ben Tillman’s racism.
Founders of that infamous 1895 constitution, predicated in part on the fear of a black man coming to power, had just busied themselves with keeping a black man away from the ballot box. Despite the former Democratic governor’s stance, it seems it would have been hard to imagine in that day a black person coming to power at all.
But fresh in everyone’s mind was reconstruction—the price tag the south paid for losing the Civil War and for trying to gain independence from a coalition of United States.
And so the state created a weak governorship, doing everything possible to avoid the centralization of power.
But South Carolina is still paying an expensive price tag for creating that weak governorship, at least one issue made apparent by claims that embattled House Speaker Bobby Harrell misused his office for personal gain.
With more than 250 policy-influencing boards and commissions, and an ultra-powerful Budget and Control Board, power is still concentrated into the hands of a few today—just not into the hands of the governor.
The funny thing about the board, which a new law will disband in 2015—it’s not actually going away.
Sure, the law created a cabinet-level Department of Administration that will take over several government functions currently nested under the board. Sure, the law put in the board’s place a State Fiscal Accountability Authority.
But that SFAA retains several core administrative functions such as procurement and bonding. It also mirrors the current board’s membership—the state treasurer, comptroller general, governor, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The current House committee chairman, Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, is reportedly on the short list of politicians lining up to replace Harrell after he suspended himself from his post. The news broke Wednesday that he had been indicted by a Richland County Grand Jury on nine ethics and misconduct charges.
But as one of the most powerful legislators in South Carolina, Harrell is still part of the ruling class of the so-called legislative state. It’s difficult to be too moved by Harrell’s suspension. As state Attorney General Alan Wilson has been reported as saying, if he has the power to suspend himself, he has the power to reinstate himself.
Speaker Pro Tempore, Jay Lucas is slated to fill in for Harrell, who is up for re-election in November.
Harrell has said he never intentionally violated the law. I’m not here to say he did. But in the saga, the legislative state has reached a pivotal moment.
In some ways, state government isn’t too far removed from its post-reconstruction era structure.
But Harrell’s indictment gives a fresh hope to people sitting under a clunky legislative state that powerful lawmakers aren’t to be considered above scrutiny—by the law and the public.