The Beagle Ban

The Agriculture Wildlife sub-committee began debate this week on a bill that would ban hunting dogs from crossing property lines without permission. The committee room was packed with concerned citizens, unlike other more sparsely attended hearings that focused on school budget cuts, etc.  In fact, more citizens showed up for this hearing than attended the impeachment resolution debate.  Most of the people were hunters who use Beagles and Walker Hounds. A few property owners came to complain about the dogs and their owners whom they term as “renegade hunters.”

Up in Blue Ridge, I frequently have Beagles running through my back yard in pursuit of something. I have always admired the way that they stay focused on the task at hand (unlike some Legislators that I know.) They never stop to socialize (again, unlike some Legislators that I know.) As I sat in the meeting, I kept trying to figure out how to make Beagles recognize property lines but finally determined that you cannot legislate against instinct.

UPDATE – The bill came up for a vote before the full Agriculture Committee. It seemed that most of the legislators would be in support of the ban. Davey Hiott from Pickens made a strong hunting heritage speech against the bill and I pointed out that the minimum$500 fine per trespassing dog seemed an extreme punishment, especially since the dogs would not actually have to pay it. Debate on the bill was adjourned and it was sent back to sub-committee.

UPDATE – This bill was returned to subcommittee last and debate was taken up again around 7pm. Several hunters continued to voice their concerns about this bill being more of an attack on hunting than trying to protect private property rights. The subcommittee (of which I am not a member) voted to amend the bill to exclude dogs that are used for bear hunting and to cap the fine at $1000. The bill should come back up in full committee the week beginning 21 February.

UPDATE – This bill finally came before full committee on March 4 and passed by a voice vote. Several of us did speak out against the bill but were defeated. The bill will be taken up by the full House and I expect it to ultimately fail.

To Preserve and Improve

Edmund Burke, a British Member of Parliament during the American Revolution and defender of the American colonists, once famously said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” He also observed that “A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.” Acknowledged as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism, Burke’s theories provide a common-sense route to achieve serious reform in our state government.  He was a proponent of organic reform that built upon inherited forms and traditions. He did not believe that reform based on abstract theory ever improved the institutions of government.

If we want to see proof of his assertions, we need only look at the efforts over the past seven years to reform our state government. Based upon the abstract notion that our Governor should have more power like those in other states, the current reform movement desires to rewrite the state constitution so that the Governor would control more of our state agencies and appoint our cabinet level officers. These reform efforts have largely failed in the Legislature because its underlying theory ignores South Carolina’s inherited form of government. In the same sense that Great Britain is controlled by the House of Commons and not the King, we are controlled by the Legislature, not the Governor – a tradition going back to 1729, the year that Burke was born.

How then do we “preserve and improve” our state government? Instead of rewriting our constitution to create a different system of governance, the Legislature should concentrate on those people already in positions of oversight at each agency. The Legislature appoints many citizens to various commissions and boards to provide oversight. Beyond the appointments, the relationship remains passive with the Legislature dependent upon the commissioners to communicate problems as they occur.

Unfortunately, there are two recently publicized examples of the lack of communication between the commissioners appointed to supervise state agencies and the Legislature.  The Legislative Audit Council recently released a report detailing the failures of the Employment Security Commission. The ESC has gone from an $800 million surplus in 2000 to insolvency in 2010 at a time when unemployed South Carolinians need these benefits most. The report specifically noted that the ESC failed to give the Legislature adequate information about the declining trust fund balance nor did the ESC makes recommendations to prevent the fund’s decline as required by state law.

The events leading up to the closure of I-385 provide another example. A unilateral decision was made by the DOT more than two years ago to proceed with the project without any effort being made to form a consensus with Upstate legislators. The DOT commissioners provided no oversight over this project as evidenced by their own comments. The DOT failed to communicate with other agencies, such as the Department of Commerce, to develop an economic impact study – a failure that brings their cost savings claim into question.  The DOT did little to prepare the public for the closure until they started receiving belated pressure from Upstate legislators and the press.  

If we look at these two examples, we know that the lack of oversight is systemic to our state government as a whole. Furthermore, the mismanagement exposed at ESC has cost the state real tax dollars – unlike other recent scandals that have been the primary focus of the news media. We reached a point in 2009 where the credibility of these agencies burned while the Legislature fiddled around with impeaching the Governor.

Real reform will begin when the Legislature develops a comprehensive plan to oversee our state agencies. Appointments to each commission should be based on qualifications not political relationships. Communication between the Legislature and the commissioners should be proactive. The Legislature should use its existing standing committee structure and county delegation structure to establish frequent communication with the commission members. If state agencies under-perform, commissioners should be held accountable. If we are willing to impeach our Governor over his travel arrangements, we certainly should be willing to dismiss commissioners whose agencies are clearly out of control. Once we have re-established control over those responsible for oversight, we can then continue preserving that which works and improving that which does not.

Much has been made of the budget cuts that have occurred because of falling tax revenue. The portion of state tax revenue received by the various agencies has dropped almost $2 billion in two years. However, South Carolinians are still spending over $5 billion per year on the operation of their state government. This amount does not include the monies received directly from the Federal government in the form of income redistribution. Now more than ever, South Carolinians deserve an efficiently operating state government. Interestingly, the audit report detailing the problems at the ESC concluded that the agency would be more efficiently operated under the authority of the Governor. However, the historical stance of the Legislature does not suggest that the Governor will ever be granted these broad powers. This leaves the Legislature with the duty to aggressively reform the system that it has fought to protect. We cannot afford the alternative.

16 January 2010

The second half of the two year Session began with the House considering the Resolution to censure Gov. Sanford. Though some expected a drawn out debate on the subject, the Resolution was overwhelmingly passed by the House after twenty minutes of debate. I voted in the majority for the Resolution.
The House also considered several pieces of legislation of note including two that would have made the Secretary of State and Secretary of Education cabinet level positions appointed by the Governor. Currently, both positions are elected by the voters and the changes would have to be approved by the voters through a referendum. Unfortunately, the Bill regarding the Secretary of State was voted down and the Bill regarding the Superintendent of Education was tabled.
Another piece of important legislation was a Bill passed for third reading that directs the Employment Security Commission to disqualify applicants for drug use, etc. This Bill is a precursor to a major reform of the ESC expected later this year.
The following are bills that I sponsored or co-sponsored this week –

H4331 – Supporting Law Enforcement – This bill would grant 180 days of paid leave to any officer who incurs bodily injurt during the performance of his police duties.

H4343 – Air Service Development Fund – This bill would establish a state fund that would allow regional airports to draw monies that would be matched by local funds in order to attract low cost carriers.

You may read each bill in its entirety at www.scstatehouse.gov