Thursday, June 23, 2011

Senate sustains Haley veto, condemns rural districts to poverty

Two things happened on Tuesday afternoon in the state Senate, and both were significant.

ONE: Senators voted to sustain Governor Nikki Haley's veto of a local bill -- approved under state law by one district's local delegation, because it affected only that district -- that would have allowed the county to issue bonds to raise the necessary funds to pay its debts. In so doing, they effectively condemned Florence District 4 to bankruptcy.

The Senate voted 18-17 to sustain the Republican governor's veto of a bill that would have let Florence District 4 issue bonds to meet its operation expenses. The tiny district has less than 800 students in three schools. It already has cut a quarter of its staff during the past three years and recently voted to raise taxes.

The district needs $800,000 to pay bills to the state and federal government. It planned to pay the borrowing back over eight years.

Sen. John Land said Florence District 4 owes for health insurance premiums and payroll taxes and its superintendent is retiring.

"For whatever reason - and I'd have to say it was bad financial management - they're about $800,000 in debt," said Land, D-Manning. "Yes, they were wrong. Yes, they should never have gotten into this financial problem and the blame rests with them - but the solution rests with us."

Their decision means that the ideologues pushing for school consolidation in the legislature will have one a back-door victory in this instance, too:

Without the money, the school district could be forced to merge into another nearby school district, officials previously have said.

Florence 4 was not the only district asking for this authority. The local delegations of Colleton and Hampton counties passed similar local bills this session, which were similarly vetoed by Haley. In the wake of the Florence 4 vote, it seemed clear that the Colleton and Hampton county bills would fail, too, leaving children in those rural districts condemned to institutional poverty.

Of course, South Carolina's lawmakers could have, during this session, addressed the problem head-on and appropriated funds to resolve those rural districts' debt without their having to resort to issuing bonds. But in South Carolina, lawmakers exhibit tremendous ease in appropriating funds for tax breaks and withholding funds from the educational needs of children in terminally impoverished counties, all in the same week. It is as it has always been in our state.

TWO: In voting to sustain Haley's vetoes of this local bill (and potentially the other two), Senators have baldly declared open war on a long-standing piece of state law -- and one another. Columnist Cindi Ross Scoppe of The State addressed this topic -- and sided with Haley in the matter -- last week, and quoted Senate Rules Committee chairman Larry Martin of Pickens County.

[W]hen 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’?”
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.

Mr. Martin said the three districts were being held to a different standard than seven others that had been given the same authority. That’s not an entirely illegitimate argument, but it perpetuates one of our Legislature’s worst beliefs: We can’t do things the right way because we’ve always done them the wrong way.

When we talked later, Mr. Martin noted that several senators who were in revolt come from counties with multiple school districts. “If we’re gonna start getting into other folks’ business, that gives me license to start consolidating all these school districts,” he said. “I can tell you, the very folks that were arguing today to sustain the veto would not want us arguing about how their board is structured.”

Now that Senators know their colleagues no longer respect the sanctity of local delegations' authority, it will be interesting to see whose ox gets gored first in next year's session, and to hear how loud grow their cries of mortal pain and righteous indignation.

I predict that if Sens. Bryant, Martin or Rose offer any local bills affecting their counties, we may see them fall the next victims to the war they declared.

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