Greenville News: Sanford-Legislature clash raises issue of diminished Governor's Office
By Dan Hoover • STAFF WRITER • August 2, 2008
He came into the Governor's Office pledged to vastly expand its power and to ignite the state's underperforming economy, but after six years of warring with an aroused and hostile Legislature run by his fellow Republicans, Mark Sanford may leave his successor with a mighty rebuilding task.
In his first inaugural address on a cold January day in 2003, Sanford said his administration "plans to formulate policies that will improve the economic well-being of our people and raise per capita income over time."
Sanford's bid to centralize power in the Governor's Office, at the expense of a Legislature that would have to relinquish the source of much of its clout, never came off. Instead, the state's bureaucracy remains split among the governor, agencies overseen by boards elected by the Legislature, and assorted independent fiefdoms.
And relations between the first and second floors of the Statehouse have perhaps never been worse.
Last week's House-Senate economic development proposal for a multipronged effort to attract knowledge-based jobs and raise the state's per capita income underscored what some view as Sanford's ideological rigidity that has ceded the initiative to the Legislature.
Sanford allies reject the notion of a weakened executive branch while placing the clash in terms not of personalities but of a small-government chief executive and big-government legislators.
Joel Sawyer, Sanford's spokesman, traced the roots of the conflict to a free enterprise-oriented governor who wants to limit government growth and a "supposedly Republican-dominated Legislature (that) has chronically overspent."
Last week's legislative initiative, built around government agencies, reflected that and was a "political maneuver to take the focus away from spending," he said.
"It says a lot about this supposed philosophy of Republicans who believe the economy is built upon government intervention versus government getting out of the way," Sawyer said. High praise for it from Senate Minority Leader John Land, D-Manning, "means one thing is hold on to your wallet," he said.
The press conference was marked by sharp criticism of the governor by House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston; Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston; and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, none of whom have opposition.
Sanford's spokesman, however, dismissed it as election-year politicking.
Some say that six years of increasingly bitter bickering between Sanford, the quintessential outsider who never served in the Legislature, and lawmakers accustomed to give-and-take negotiating mixed with a dose of political camaraderie, has taken its toll, mostly on the Governor's Office.
Although Sanford has won a modest small-business tax cut and reorganization of the Transportation Department and has closed the deal on Vought Aircraft Industries' Charleston facility, much of the program he campaigned on has died in the Legislature.
"The sleeping giant is awake," said Blease Graham, a University of South Carolina political scientist, referring to a Legislature aroused over threats to its dominance and the Sanford style.
Now, he said, "a lot depends on (Sanford's) successor."
Graham said the restructuring of state government that gave additional authority to the executive branch in 1995 was a desirable trend "in a contemporary state in a dynamic federal system that often demands speedy, unified action as an essential element of public policy."
"Many times legislatures require more coaxing to go along with major changes. This is where executive conduct is important and where the emphasis on informal powers of the executive is pivotal. And informal powers suggest the ability to persuade, to inform, to lead convincingly, even to compromise," he said.
The ongoing executive-legislative spat "seems to be a case of conviction over compromise," Graham said, "and that conviction may be perceived as meddling in electoral politics, as being insensitive to positions of key legislators, as being downright ornery on occasions. It doesn't take long for trust to break down; it may take a generation to rebuild it."
Sanford's support of conservative challengers to some legislators in the June primaries, backed by tens of thousands of dollars from a self-admitted New York admirer of the governor, may have further widened the breach.
"That's complete fiction," Sawyer said.
"A lot of our key accomplishments have been things we compromised on. We haven't gotten all we wanted in tax cuts and school choice," but compromise brought lower taxes for small business, more charter schools and a streamlined Department of Transportation with executive branch control, Sawyer said.
Sanford critics are "typically" adherents of big government, he said, "and that's something we absolutely won't compromise on."
But it may be nothing more than a clash of different styles, backgrounds and dynamics that will remain unique to this administration.
Clemson University professor David Woodard, a Republican consultant-pollster, predicted last week that because of two terms marked by slow growth and very public executive-legislative battling, those who run for the 2010 GOP nomination for governor will do so as "the un-Sanford," distancing themselves from him.
There has been a cost to the way government should work, Woodard said.
"The animosity between the Legislature and the governor means that the Legislature, vested with the power of the purse and the requirement to balance budget revenues, has been the scene of all the negotiating. The governor is just a veto voice. As a result you have legislators running the state, and virtually ignoring the governor because he refuses to talk with them about what they see as important," he said.
Former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges observed that "one thing you learn as governor is some days you are the stick and some days you are the piñata."
Hodges said that traditionally "there is always a healthy amount of competition" between the governor and legislative leaders, one in which private working relationships work better than going public.
"I'm not sure that's the case right now, and that's troubling.
"In our state, the veto power is a significant tool. I used to tell legislators, 'If my agenda doesn't pass, rest assured your agenda won't pass.' That threat was backed up by a reliable group of legislators who would back all reasonable veto messages. And it allowed us to co-exist in a productive way.
"If the governor can't put together the votes to sustain vetoes, then the Governor's Office has considerably less power to set any agenda. The danger is that the Legislature grows comfortable ignoring veto messages from the governor in future administrations, and that weakens the office," Hodges said.
Hollis "Chip" Felkel, a longtime Republican operative and Greenville business adviser, says Sanford's refusal to compromise "has created a chasm the next governor is going to have to spend a whole lot of political capital to repair."
By working the system, "he could have gotten so much more done. Restructuring? Carroll Campbell had a Democratic House and Senate and he still managed to get some restructuring done because he understood the value and power of reaching out to people, and, God forbid, actually compromising on a few things."
While the state has watched big-time development deals head to Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina, Sanford has faced mostly unfavorable comparisons to many Republicans' iconic gold standard for leadership, the late Gov. Carroll Campbell, the guy who could win over reluctant legislators with closed-door bonhomie or knock their heads together, the guy who sealed the deal with BMW.
Harrell and Leatherman drew that distinction again last week to chide Sanford for failing to use what they said is the wider array of tools at his disposal and watching the state's once low unemployment rate become one of the worst and income levels lag behind those of neighboring states.
In July 2005, just after becoming speaker, Harrell said, "Since Mark's become governor, I don't think we picked (job growth) back up like it was when Carroll Campbell was governor."
Over the past 36 months, Harrell's opinion has only hardened.
Eclipsed Campbell's jobs
To critics of Sanford's jobs creation efforts, Sawyer says the governor has a sparkling record that exceeds his Republican predecessors.
Citing U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, he said Sanford generated 154,783 new jobs in this first 5 years in office, compared with 137,130 for the same period of Campbell's administration, and that his first four years topped Beasley's one term, 147,409-121,794.
Sen. David Thomas, R-Fountain Inn, says Sanford "has not been a Carroll Campbell in recruiting industry, but there aren't many like Carroll Campbell, who have that business savvy. I'm not sure I'd criticize him for that, exclusively."
"It seems like it was about the way it was, no difference one way or the other," Thomas said of executive-legislative balance.
Robert Royall, the retired banker who served as commerce secretary in the Beasley administration, defended Sanford's economic development record: "We don't need to jump on the governor. They're doing a good job."
But, he added, "If there's no teamwork, that's a severe problem. The whole idea is to work together as a team and nice things happen."