Last week’s hearings by lawmakers scrutinizing South Carolina’s two main transportation agencies underscored the problems along the state’s fractured highway system.
But the Transportation Department and the State Infrastructure Bank aren’t the only factors in the bottleneck preventing roads repairs.
They’re not even the primary factors.
As I slogged through the more than six hours of hearings, it became increasingly clear to me that state government’s structure is central to our crumbling infrastructure.
This roads debate is an indictment on how our state is governed, not on funding shortfalls or any would-be failures of the agencies tasked with bringing our transportation system up to par.
Of the 31 state infrastructure banks nationwide, South Carolina has the only one operating independently of its Transportation Department, according to Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort.
But the State Infrastructure Bank—or SIB—isn’t a maverick agency that exists to disregard and siphon money from the primary transportation agency, SCDOT.
It was created nearly 20 years ago by a maverick state to operate independently—unaccountable to almost anyone except two of the state’s most powerful people, the House speaker and the Senate president pro tempore.
Each appoints two members to the board. The governor also appoints two members to the board, and the SCDOT chairman is the seventh member.
And while being a maverick occasionally has its virtues, in this case it accentuates the state’s lopsided balance of power.
You could say Sen. Hugh Leatherman best embodies this lopsided balance of power solely by virtue of his position.
Or, more accurately, his positions.
The Florence Republican has been a senator since 1981. His resume reads like a profile for “Who’s Who” among South Carolina politicians.
-is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which held the hearings.
-holds a spot on the SIB, which approves and finances projects over $100 million.
-presides over the Senate.
-is a member of the recently restructured five-member State Fiscal Accountability Authority. Depending on who you ask, that agency isn’t much different from the former Budget and Control Board it was designed to replace, though the bill that created the SFAA moved some of the board’s functions over to a cabinet-level Department of Administration.
-is chairman of the General Assembly’s six-member Joint Bond Review Committee. The committee monitors bonds dealing with permanent improvement projects.
Leatherman plays a significant leadership role in state debts and infrastructure improvements.
But South Carolina, the maverick state, isn’t just any state.
She’s a legislative state with—
-a weak governorship.
-a feeble ethics system, which lets lawmakers police their peers. One bill would put an end to self-policing by lawmakers, but it has yet to pass the Senate.
-lawmakers who aren’t required to fully disclose who pays them.
-an SFAA that looks an awful lot like the antiquated agency it was meant to replace.
It’s only natural that Leatherman—or any hot blooded, veteran lawmaker in his position—should accrue that much authority.
As commuters hurtle down pitted highways this year, SCDOT is set to widen a rural connector that cuts through Leatherman’s district.
It’s only natural that transportation officials widen to four lanes this stretch of the two-lane Pamplico Highway, which connects rural Pamplico to Florence. The Transportation Department is tasked with overseeing the $375 million project, which the SIB approved.
The Senate is set to debate on Wednesday a proposal to raise the state’s 16.75 cents-a-gallon gas tax by 12 cents.
If in fact, transportation officials at the state and local levels need more funding to solve our roads woes, then so be it. But we can’t fix our roads over the long term without first fixing our government’s balance of power.