Originally created 07/24/01

Abuse of power



Sometimes it can be difficult to know when an ambitious politician is acting on the public's behalf or his own. That's certainly been true of South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon.

He was a strong partisan Republican even before he considered running for the governorship next year, so it's understandable if some regard the "the separation of power" lawsuit he is filing against Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges as just another partisan headline-grabbing maneuver.

But that cynical view would be wrong. Condon's suit is grounded in sound constitutional principles. Even if he didn't have his eye on the governor's mansion - or even if he weren't Republican - he'd be ducking his responsibility as attorney general if he didn't challenge Hodges.

The governor has asked presidents of the state's 33 colleges and universities to return to the general fund $28.5 million that the legislature appropriated to them in exchange for reduced tuition to be facilitated by $88 million from his vetoes of a grocery tax rollback.

Many South Carolinians might regard the governor's action as good policy - indeed, the right thing to do. However, policy is not the issue. Abuse of power is.

As Condon points out, state law prohibits using appropriated funds for any purpose other than that specified in the General Assembly's budget bill. The A.G.'s suit - which will likely be settled by the state Supreme Court - would require the executive branch to return the $28.5 million to the universities.

If the court rules in Hodges' favor, it would mark a historic shift of the power of the purse from the legislative branch to the executive. Lawmakers' budget would mean virtually nothing if the governor is empowered to juggle spending priorities any way he wants.

Condon correctly notes the power to control the appropriations process would make the governor (any governor, not just Hodges) "a fiscal law unto himself."

Adds state Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, "There'd be no reason for the legislature to meet." Budgeting and appropriating are lawmakers' primary responsibility.

Ryberg and Condon are correct. To do right by the state's higher education system, Hodges is saying the means justifies the ends. It does not. His "fiscal fix" is an abuse of power and it would be shocking if the state's high court doesn't see it that way, too.