Thursday, March 27, 2003

Grooms, Continued

The report runs nearly 100 pages and reveals a lack of internal controls, unclear and unwritten policy, suspicious accounting activity and questionable compliance with federal law. One of the most disturbing findings was testimony that revealed that because the Transportation Department has misspent and mismanaged, the department may not be able to meet its payroll by this summer.

Our current commissioner-director model of management means the director is accountable only to a combined majority of parochial commissioners. These commissioners in turn have generally cared more about scoring road projects for their district than they have about responsibly overseeing a crucial state agency. At its best, our system has functioned piecemeal; at its worst, it has materialized in a patchwork system of roads built because of political pressure rather than public need.

To be sure, this existing management system is a creature of the Legislature. It is our responsibility to fix it, and the time for reform is now.

My Transportation subcommittee, which has been meeting since November, developed legislation that brings meaningful, commonsense reform to the way we plan and build roads. Our reform proposal creates a system of checks and balances, separating the planning of roads and the building and maintaining of roads. The new Board of Transportation would better represent a cross-section of the state, ensuring adequate representation from rural and urban areas as well as from other areas based on maintenance needs. The new board would prioritize projects and would approve the state’s Transportation Improvement Plan and mass transit plan. Importantly, our reform plan would require the board to approve financial planning for large projects, its members would have to discharge duties in good faith with due care, and they would be barred from entering into conflict-of-interest transactions. The plan establishes measurable criteria and a system of ranking to ensure our roads are built where they are needed most.

Finally, the reform package provides that the governor would appoint a new transportation secretary. The secretary would be accountable to the governor, and the governor is answerable to the people of South Carolina.

Unfortunately, the road to true reform took a U-turn in the Senate on Thursday when our sensible legislation was shoved aside in favor of a flawed proposal that would actually make the department less accountable and needlessly inject more politics into the road building process. This flawed proposal would further politicize our already-polarized decision-making process by placing more day-to-day control in the hands of Columbia politicians, rather than those who know how to build and maintain roads.

I am convinced that many of my Senate colleagues are unaware of just how ill-conceived this flawed proposal may be. The Transportation Department’s root problem is the parochial nature of the commission system, which pits one commissioner against another at the expense of sound public policy.

Our current system is dysfunctional. I know it; other legislators know it; you know it. And still, somehow, there is resistance. Despite the overwhelmingly favorable vote to pass the real reform proposal out of the Transportation Committee and on to the floor, the boys of the good ol’ boy system are pushing back.

As floor debate began last week, it was learned that a new Transportation Commission member has been seated on the existing commission. This despite the fact that his “election” was held without the knowledge of all the legislators legally entitled to cast a vote on behalf of their constituents. Worse still, this vote apparently was held without public notice, again in violation of state law. It now appears other members of the existing Transportation Commission were seated in similar fashion.

The time for reform is now. Millions of dollars have been wasted, accountability is out the window, and our roads continue to crumble. Call your legislators and urge them to act. Tell them they should support real reform. Tell them to support the original reform proposal that makes DOT work for you instead of the politicians.