Sunday, Mar. 22, 2009

Warthen: South Carolina’s unfinished business

THE COLUMN I’d prefer to be remembered for — my fond reflection on how great it has been to work here with Robert Ariail — ran on Friday. But I hope you’ll forgive me if I close my career at this newspaper with a tough-love piece about unfinished business in South Carolina. Keep in mind, I say these things because I do love my state dearly, and I want the best for it. I always have.

None of these issues will come as a surprise to you. I’ve gone on and on about them for years. These are things we need to do if our state is to reach its potential — to put it more bluntly, to catch up with all those other states whose people are healthier, wealthier and (apparently, given our resistance to reform) wiser than we are.

Each of these items is interwoven with the others; each could be a book (one that I’ve written, on these pages). But here’s the short version:

Improve our schools. Stop talking about nonsensical distractions — such as our governor’s proposal to pay people to pull their children out of our schools — and fix the schools. The only way we will ever raise incomes and overcome the legacy of our economy having been built upon slavery is to make sure everyone has a decent education. And the only possible way to do that is through a statewide system of public schools, with the more affluent areas underwriting the more depressed ones. Public schools are the only ones we the people control, and they have to do whatever we decide they should do. Here are some of the changes we should implement: Pay teachers more for better performance, not for initials after their names; eliminate waste and reduce incompetence by cutting the number of districts from 85 to no more than one per county; empower principals to hire and fire. Let’s stop talking, and get these things done.

Restructure state government. Right now, most of the executive branch is fragmented into scores of tiny islands that answer to no one. Make the executive branch accountable to the elected chief executive, so that our next governor (and here’s another thing for our to-do list — elect a better governor) can pull our limited resources together and get state agencies working together to accomplish the agenda upon which he (or she) is elected. Our current system was designed, intentionally, to resist change. We have to replace it to move forward.

Restructure local government. To give you but one example — the real-world economic community that we informally name “Columbia” consists of more than a dozen municipalities, two counties, seven school districts and an absurd tangle of independent little jurisdictions such as fire, recreation, water and sewer districts. The technical, legal city of Columbia — a mere fraction of the real community — is “governed” in a way that is guaranteed to shield both city administrators and elected officials from accountability. Statewide, we need to make it easier for local governments to consolidate and annex, and get rid of the more than 500 special purpose districts that unnecessarily complicate governance on the local level.

Set local governments free. Let the people elected to run the governments closest to the people run them, without interference by state legislators. The ways that the people who should be minding state business (and you’d think they’d have enough on their plates) meddle in local matters are legion. In some communities they appoint school board members (in Dillon County, a single lawmaker — who happens to be an employee of the school system — determines who will be on the school board). In others, they set school budgets. Collectively, legislators put local governments statewide in a ridiculous bind, writing impossible rules for how and even how much they can tax. Local people know what their communities need; leave them alone.

Let our colleges and universities drive our economy. The presidents of our three research universities have made strides, cooperating to an extraordinary degree. It needs to become the focused policy of this state to use our public institutions of higher education to attract the best and brightest, keep them here and foster research that puts us on the cutting edge of wealth-creating innovation. That means funding the endowed chairs program at twice the level that we did when we were actually investing in it, and restoring support for the schools themselves. We are 40 years behind North Carolina and Georgia. We won’t catch up in my lifetime, but we need to start trying.

Overhaul our tax system. Figure out what state government needs to do, the things that only it can do, then determine what that costs, and devise and implement a fair, balanced and reliable way of funding it. That means scrapping our entire tax structure, and making it serve all of the people of this state, rather than overlapping, competing, narrow interests.

Some of these things are tough; others are less so. But they are all essential to getting our act together in South Carolina. To help us warm up for the harder ones, I suggest we do the following immediately:

• Raise our lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax by a dollar, bringing us (almost) to the national average, and saving thousands of young lives.

• Remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.

While those last two are easier to implement, they are essential to proving to the world and ourselves that we are serious about building a better South Carolina. The reasons that have been offered not to do those two, simple things are not reasons in any rational sense, but rather outgrowths of the mind-sets that have held us back since 1865.

Which is long enough.
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