By Billy Oswald
South Carolina suffers from a case of low standards.
Oh, I’m not talking about the people. South Carolinians are among the most decent, honest, hard-working people you’ll find anywhere.
Rather, it’s our elected leadership that leaves much to be desired. Our politicians too often forget who elected them, and whose money they’re spending. Many enter public service for the right reasons, only to become tangled in a web of lobbyists and special interests. Some simply lose touch with the needs of the average taxpayer. And it seems the more our public officials let us down, the more resigned we become to simply accept it.
As a result, our state and communities fall short of our potential.
There’s perhaps no worse malady affecting government than special interest influence. Those with deep-pockets have a politician’s ear, while regular folks are lucky to get a return phone call. As a result, the needs of regular folks frequently take a back seat to wishes of the lobbyists, industry groups and campaign donors who wield clout behind the scenes.
The consequences of special interest influence can most clearly be seen in the nuclear reactor debacle. The disaster was possible because legislators passed a law literally written by energy utility lobbyists which allows energy utilities to put the financial risk of their multi-billion project on their customers, rather than their shareholders. You can thank S.C. lawmakers for your surging electric bills.
Too often, those holding the government purse-strings exhibit a casual attitude toward the burden they place on taxpayers. They spend in ways most of us would consider wasteful – from programs of questionable value to unnecessary “pet projects.” Examples abound. In 2014, I helped organize opposition to a countywide “roads” tax after officials added to the proposal tens of millions for frills such as new municipal buildings and sports stadiums. The boards of two Midlands governments recently voted themselves exorbitant salary increases – raises of $6,000-a-year and a $10,500-a-year — while also raising taxes. I could go on.
Even some Republicans who campaign as fiscal conservatives change their stripes once in office. They indulge in perks at taxpayer expense, such as travel junkets. My own Congressman spends tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on campaign-style mailings. (Most of us would probably prefer that money go back to the Treasury.)
There are misplaced priorities. Our leaders regularly focus on headline-grabbing issues while leaving more mundane, but more serious, problems unaddressed. For years, the unfunded liability in our state’s pension system — an issue of tremendous, far-reaching consequence — worsened while lawmakers debated every hot-button issue under the sun. A few years ago, the Legislature reconvened for a special session on the Confederate flag even though the state budget, its most basic responsibility, hadn’t yet been completed.
The notions of “accountability” and “oversight” are frequently paid lip-service, but little else. Politicians regularly choose secrecy over transparency. There’s back-scratching, deal-making and political patronage.
And then there’s abuse of public trust. The ongoing Statehouse probe is a reminder that too many view public service as a means for personal gain. No matter the investigation’s outcome, the greatest casualty will be the further erosion of a precious commodity – trust.
Mid-October saw yet another round of indictments… another glimpse into the ugly underbelly of politics and the influence industry.
Folks, this should be a wake-up call.
It’s not a proud moment for our state, but there’s a way to wring something positive out of it. As citizens, we can use this as an opportunity to raise the bar for those who govern us.
We can commit to setting a higher standard of integrity and ethics for our politicians, and hold them to account when they fall short. We can remind them that they work for us, and that we have every right to know what they’re up to. When they come for our wallets, we can expect them to justify every cent they spend. We can be more vigilant in seeking out conflicting interests.
About this time three years ago, South Carolinians’ true colors were on display as we pulled together to rebuild following a devastating flood. We donated money, volunteered in shelters and held food drives. Our response was a testament to our tremendous character and goodwill. Imagine our potential if we demanded a government that measures up to the character of our people.
South Carolinians are second-to-none. There’s no reason we should continue to settle for substandard leadership.