The true test of political leadership is about making the hard, long-term and right decision instead of the easy, short term and wrong decision.
Said differently, do our political leaders genuinely work to solve problems or do they just kick the can down the road?
Unfortunately for our state, kicking the can down the road has been the unofficial sport of the Statehouse crowd for nearly a generation. Can kicking results from politicians who refuse to look down the road further than the next election. For too many, making tough decisions is just not in their nature.
The irony is that most politicians face few serious challenges to re-election. In some election years, over 90% of incumbents who seek re-election win. Their campaign fundraising is easy in that they have a couple of fundraisers in Columbia and the special interest groups ante up.
The vast majority of funds raised by most members of the legislature is from the Statehouse special interest folks and not their constituents back home. And, once they build up a big war chest, they are less likely to be challenged either in a primary or a general election.
So let’s talk specifics, what does this can kicking look like in concrete terms?
First is education. I don’t think there is anyone in this state who would stand up and say “South Carolina has good schools.” The simple truth is our schools are failing. Yes, there are some good schools (even great schools) and yes there are a lots of dedicated teachers (some are great teachers) and yes many of our school buildings are new and modern (some are great) – but overall our state’s schools are failing our children.
There are a multitude of reasons why the schools are failing but the principle reason is simply long-term neglect. Back when Richard Riley was Governor from 1978-86, South Carolina was known as one of the leading education reform states in the country.
People came from far and wide to study what we were doing. (Full Disclosure: I serve as President of the SC New Democrats and Riley was our founder). But, since then our governors have generally seemed to just care less and less about education – not all, but most.
During the recent recession, South Carolina’s legislators cut both K-12 and higher education spending by a greater percentage than any state in the union. And, just this week when Gov. Haley said there would be a budget shortfall of $200 million, she proposed to cut education spending by $100 million.
Now a lot of our education problems won’t be solved by money alone, but ask any teacher who reaches into their pocket each month (and most do) to buy needed schools supplies for their students if they support these cuts.
Schools don’t deteriorate in a few years and test scores don’t fall over night – it’s about long-term neglect.
Second is roads. Let me put this succinctly, we have among the worst roads in the country. A recent study found “throughout South Carolina, 46% of major roads and highways are in poor condition, a significant increase from 2008 when 32% of the state’s major roads were rated in poor condition. 20% of South Carolina’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete … (this) costs each S.C. driver as much as $1,250 per year … or $3 billion statewide.”
And yet the Legislature refuses to support sensible solutions like raising the gas tax to fix the roads – our gas tax is among the lowest in the country. And, the problem with roads is not just one of money. Most objective observers would say that the Department of Transportation should be renamed the Department of Corruption – and it’s been that way for a very long time.
Roads don’t deteriorate in a few years and systemic corruption does not develop overnight – it’s about long-term neglect.
Third is pension. There are today 558,000 former state employees, teachers and police officers who depend on their state retirement to put food on the table, buy their medicines and sustain them in their daily life. And, their pension fund is $20 billion in the hole – and the hole is getting deeper. Just last year alone, the hole got $1.4 billion deeper.
Several years back, an analysis found that we were paying exorbitant fees to fund managers to manage the money, among the highest of any state, and they gave us about the lowest return on investment of any state. This can largely be explained in one word: corruption.
Sen. Kevin Bryan, chairman of a new committee charged with figuring out what to do called the unfunded pensions “the state’s biggest problem of the decade.”
Pension funds don’t deteriorate in a few years and deficits don’t grow overnight – it’s about long-term neglect.
When Bryan says pensions are the state’s biggest problem of the decade, he’s right – and he’s wrong. Yes, pensions are the biggest problem – and education and roads are the biggest problem as well.
We have three huge ‘problems of the decade’ – and we have to solve them all at once.
So, back to my opening line – the true test of political leadership is about making the hard, long-term and right decision instead of the easy, short term and wrong decision.
Our political leaders have failed this test – and the question is what will they do now?
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org