Originally created 01/18/98

Senate desires power



COLUMBIA -- The restructuring honeymoon is over.

The South Carolina Senate, after meekly watching two governors exert increasing power during the past four years, started kicking at the reins this week.

Five years after shifting South Carolina from a state controlled by the Legislature to one largely overseen by the governor, powerful senators seem intent on reminding everyone the senior legislative body still wields a very big stick.

"I think what you are seeing is the Senate reasserting itself in its constitutional role in checks and balances, and I don't think party loyalty -- either Democrat or Republican -- is going to be an impediment anymore," said Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston.

"We passed restructuring; we knew what we were getting into," said Majority Leader John Land, D-Manning. "It goes back to the execution of it and that's where we're falling short."

South Carolina long held to the government's Colonial roots -- trusting more in the power of the 170-member Legislature than centralizing it in a governor who was considered one of the weakest in the nation.

Reforming that became a public debate for several years, and in 1993 lawmakers agreed to fold 75 state boards they largely appointed into 17 executive agencies.

Then-Gov. Carroll Campbell, a Republican, gained the power to hire and fire the heads of 11 major agencies. Mr. Campbell, who did not run for re-election in 1994, used that power sparingly.

But his successor, David Beasley, also a Republican, has been bolder in exercising the new authority.

"Many in the Senate opposed restructuring and liked that old system," Mr. Beasley said. "But that's history and there's some frustration over that."

But discontent set in during the past four years.

Some lawmakers blame Mr. Beasley for allowing the state Revenue Department to write regulations that allowed the proliferation of video gambling malls and the state Corrections Department to make major changes in prison policy like eliminating pay for all new working prisoners.

"This is nothing but government policy being formulated by unelected people," Mr. McConnell said. "All these people wanting changes, instead of coming back to the General Assembly and have to fight it out on the floor with elected officials, they want somebody -- a bureaucrat -- to make an interpretation."

"They may be overstepping what the Senate feels is their power," said Senate President Pro Tem John Drummond, D-Ninety Six.

This past week, the Senate struck back.

Mr. Beasley's hand-picked interim Public Safety director, Eddie Gunn, was rejected by a subcommittee. Senators said Mr. Beasley was too involved in that department.

On Wednesday, Mr. McConnell and two other Charleston-area senators tried to dismantle the state Infrastructure Bank board.

Angry that Charleston might have to provide some local money for a new Cooper River bridge, they said Mr. Beasley's appointee as chairman was trying to move beyond the directives assigned to the board by lawmakers responsible for its creation.

The unrest even spread to a board the Legislature elects: the Public Service Commission. By Thursday, senators warned the commission not to move on the issue of implementing electric deregulation without legislative approval.

"I can't believe anybody in the General Assembly, out of the 124 House members and 46 senators, would be interested in an issue such as deregulation going into effect without legislative involvement," said Sen. Tommy Moore, D-Aiken.

Mr. McConnell noted that PSC members face legislative re-election this year.

"If the PSC tries to overstep its role and grab that legislative authority, I hope the Legislature turns out every single one of them," he said.

Senators also have promised intense scrutiny of all of Mr. Beasley's appointees and of proposed Revenue Department regulations to ban video gambling.

"The governor has never asked our advice, but he does ask for our consent and we still give it to him. I think those days are over," Mr. Land said.

Mr. Beasley's nominee to run the Tourism Department, William "Buddy" Jennings, still faces Senate approval, and Mr. Gunn gets another shot in front of the full Senate Judiciary Committee.

Democrats do run the Senate, and it is an election year for Mr. Beasley. Still, some Republicans aren't great fans of the governor either.

"I was one of the people who talked him into becoming a Republican," said Republican Sen. Arthur Ravenel of Mount Pleasant, who lost to Mr. Beasley in the 1994 GOP primary. "I should have kept my damn mouth shut."

"In fact, the Democrats have been rather quiet," Mr. Land said. "It's been his own party that's been slapping his hand."

"I think what you're seeing is Republicans more independent as senators," Mr. McConnell said. "We just cannot let the executive branch just coast along and handle matters as they want to handle them."