The S.C. General Assembly is far different than 27 years ago when Operation Lost Trust blew open the cozy culture of the Statehouse with federal charges against 28 legislators and lobbyists in a cash-for-votes sting.
People went to jail. Some avoided it. Ethics rules were changed to become some of the toughest in the nation as it became virtually impossible for people to buy a cup of coffee legally for a friend in the legislature.
But time moved on and institutions adapted. Unknown dark money rose to fuel ever-increasing partisan, nasty campaigns. In recent years, shenanigans have shown up in political campaign accounts, leading to the departure of a lieutenant governor and House speaker. Currently, others hang in the balance in an ongoing Statehouse scandal that might be broadening, according to sources.
Amidst all of this, lawmaking has to go on. And it does – in an environment that is much more transparent, particularly with public money. But legislators, most of whom are good and decent people, constantly are looking behind their backs, just in case.
All of this is a backdrop for what’s really happening on a grander scale in South Carolina’s political system these days. More and more, you hear the word “corruption.”
Two establishment outsiders, one in each major party, are basing the foundations of their campaigns on a culture of corruption at the Statehouse, seeming to tar and feather anyone who works in politics … so that they can become governor and then have to work with the very people they are pillorying.
Just listen to what was said earlier this month by former two-time GOP agency head Catherine Templeton of Mount Pleasant: “I am here to put the corrupt good ol’ boys on notice and remind them that they work for us.”
Or how new Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Noble of Charleston characterized the General Assembly: “Too many of our Statehouse politicians have been infected with the contagious disease of corruption. Its symptoms have not just contaminated the halls of our state house but have spread.”
What might be happening is the 2018 gubernatorial contest might be becoming a race between establishment insiders, such as GOP Gov. Henry McMaster and Democratic state Rep. James Smith of Columbia, versus candidates such as Templeton and Noble. Maybe political veterans are better equipped to root out corruption with a new wave of tougher proposals. But maybe outsiders can dampen rot, even though the whole “draining the swamp” thing in Washington, D.C., doesn’t seem to be a very good precedent.
Regardless of which candidate wins, there’s enough work to make government work for people, be accountable and become more transparent. And all of this rises well above the level of enrichment for any particular elected official.
Maybe there’s just a culture of neglect at the Statehouse that is more pervasive than a few bad apples being used as convenient bogeymen. Consider:
Is it politically acceptable for legislative districts to be gerrymandered so that more than 90 percent of seats are practically winnable by only one political party?
Is it morally acceptable for state agency heads to cut staff so much that those regulated by state rules don’t get enough scrutiny and are having a field day?
Is it politically corrupt to continue to allow millions of dollars of dark campaign dollars so nameless people work to skew the results of our elections?
Is it morally corrupt to keep harping on the same old divisive issues every year, making no progress and leaving no time for substantive proposals to be considered that can really help more people?
Is it fair for state lawmakers to keep giving millions of dollars in special incentive packages to big companies while virtually ignoring ways to beef up small businesses, the backbone of our economy?
Is it morally acceptable to continue to focus on cutting taxes and reducing revenues as the state’s mandated needs, such as education, are underfunded and the state’s infrastructure crumbles?
Campaigns are great times to ask questions. In the coming year, let’s make sure we’re asking the real ones that matter so that whoever is elected can start taking care of business to make the state better for everyone.