Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Lies, logic, and changing the rules when it's convenient

South Carolina's lawmakers like to say that we spend upwards of $10,000, $11,000, maybe more than $12,000 per student to educate children attending our public schools. They like to say it because it sounds spectacular and makes us look like we're spending money like water on a bloated, wasteful school system. The average citizen doesn't know the difference, so our electeds get to play both sides of the question, depending on their audience, saying, (a) See, we're downright foolish, we spend so much on our little ones and their fancy schools, or (b) See, we're downright foolish, spending too much on other people's little ones and their fancy schools.

Fact is, when the legislature left for home two weeks ago -- before Governor Nikki Haley demanded they return to pass her political agenda -- they were satisfied to spend only $1,617 per child from our state's treasury. That's roughly what we spent during Bill Clinton's second term, a truly pathetic and paltry sum for a state that pretends to support public education.
Yes, "pretends" is the perfectly correct word to use, when a state legislature funds public schools at so low a rate that districts cannot afford to keep a school's doors open and the lights on without issuing general obligation bonds to pay local basic school expenses.

Yet here we have another perfect example of the ineffectiveness -- or malevolence, for it must be one or the other -- of our General Assembly: When local delegations adopted local legislation granting school districts permission to do exactly this -- issue bonds to pay for operating expenses -- Haley vetoed those bills.

And now those lawmakers, representing three school districts, find themselves begging their colleagues for support to override Haley's vetoes. It is literally a matter of whether or not districts will be able to pay their bills through the summer and fall.
Sen. Clementa Pinckney is one of them, and his local newspaper in Bluffton noted his case in yesterday's edition:

Calling it his last local priority before the S.C. General Assembly finishes its work this summer, Sen. Clementa Pinckney is trying to save a bill that Hampton County school officials say will ease their budgetary crisis.

At issue is whether school districts should be allowed to issue general obligation bonds as a way to pay for operating expenses.

In Hampton County's case, officials say they need that option to offset lost stimulus money, Education Finance Act funds and future budget cuts. The alternative, according to Pinckney's bill, is to lay off teachers and staff, raise class sizes and and cut programs.

The Democrat's proposal, S. 877, is similar to Rep. Kenneth Hodges' bill, H. 4149, for Colleton County School District, and Sen. John Land's legislation, S. 785, for Florence County School District No. 4.

All were passed by local delegations, vetoed by the governor, and raised last week for an override by local senators. Traditionally with such bills, the rest of the 46-member body does not cast a vote.

But last week the three bills ran into intense objections from Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, and others.

"This is something that really does have a statewide implication on all the taxpayers in the state," said Campsen. "You don't incur debt to pay current operating expenses. That's like using your home as an ATM."

Notice that bit in the middle: "Traditionally with such bills, the rest of the 46-member body does not cast a vote." Yet two senators, neither of whom lives in the districts asking for this option: Hampton County, Colleton County or Florence County, raised objections and went on to orate with gusto on behalf of their party leader's position.

Why? Had not similar legislation been passed before, giving local districts the right to band-aid the wounds left gaping by the legislature?

Legislative records show that since 2003, six other similar bills passed into law, either by a local delegation's veto override or by the governor allowing the bill to pass without signing it.

They include school districts in Sumter, York, Orangeburg, Kershaw, Lee and Clarendon.

The newspaper asked Pinckney to speculate why his colleagues ignored the chamber's vaunted polity in this instance.

"I assume there may be some political things. Maybe there's blood in the water, and people are looking at it from a purely philosophical standpoint, just to make a point," said the Jasper County senator, who also represents Hampton County.

"I don't believe in making philosophical points. I am dealing with reality. Right now I have districts that are hurting," he added.

Just a day earlier, columnist Cindi Ross Scoppe of The State weighed in on the matter -- and sided with Haley.

Scoppe's argument was that the system itself -- rules that allow local delegations to pass single-county bills -- is "one of the most enduring and destructive vestiges of the Legislative state." Fair enough and maybe, but this is what we have instead of a conscientious legislature.

Supporters say the districts are in crisis and must make disastrous cuts without this admittedly irresponsible funding mechanism. The governor says the funding mechanism is fiscal folly and shouldn’t be allowed regardless of the consequences.

I agree with the governor, although the districts do need help that the state has failed to provide. But the debate is not simply about whether such an extraordinary remedy is justified; it is about whether state legislators finally will accept their responsibility to act as state legislators.

Scoppe is a knowledgeable columnist and keeps the attention of lawmakers with her incisive logic; that logic has caused legislators -- former Speaker David Wilkins was one -- to call her out by name from the podium or the chamber floor.

But that's the very problem. Logic is appropriately applied where logic is respected. This is South Carolina, where logic is no more than a political tool, used for some tasks and not for others, depending on who may be helped or hurt.

Scoppe writes:

By tradition, the only people who vote on a single-county bill are the legislators from that county. Except for school bills, they’re almost always unconstitutional. The single-county school bills are simply bad policy, because they buttress our practice of writing different rules for different districts, and prevent the Legislature from making the reforms we need to improve public education. The most obvious example is school district consolidation, which would benefit our state in countless ways; the Legislature refuses to order it because most legislators consider the districts to be the sole province of the legislators who represent them.

But when it became clear Thursday that local senators would override the governor’s vetoes, tea-party senators revolted, insisting that it was not only their right but their responsibility to weigh in. Sens. Kevin Bryant and Shane Martin said they should vote to uphold the vetoes because the bills would affect their constituents who own property in the districts. Sen. Mike Rose said the bills went far beyond such traditional single-district topics as changing selection methods for school boards and pushed the Legislature onto a dangerously slippery slope that eventually would lead to exempting certain districts from, say, state student-teacher ratios. “At what point,” he asked, “are we going to step in and say, ‘you can’t do that’?”

Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell said the bills likely wouldn’t be considered constitutionally acceptable school laws because they made findings in the name of the Legislature and exempted the districts from state law.

The most surprising thing about the debate was who championed the divine rights of local legislators: Senate Rules Chairman Larry Martin, who warned his colleagues to be careful what they did unto others, lest the same things be done unto them: “I want you to stay out of my business in Pickens County, and I’m gonna stay out of yours.”

The fact that this perversion of the Golden Rule would be enunciated by one of the most responsible senators demonstrates just how deeply ingrained the idea remains that the Legislature should control all aspects of life in South Carolina.

And it illustrates my point, while little children continue to get by on state investments of $1,617 each.

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