South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has signaled his support for legislation consolidating Orangeburg County’s three school districts.
“I commend the Orangeburg County Legislative Delegation for endeavoring to address their local school issues,” McMaster writes, indicating he supports consolidation efforts statewide in the face of “out-of-control” administrative costs.
Yet McMaster’s support has come wrapped in a major complication. The former U.S. attorney and state attorney general has vetoed legislation that would form a countywide school district in 2019. He said his decision is based on belief that the bill in its present form contains an unconstitutional provision.
While once, legislative delegations were the governing bodies for counties through direct say and appointment of councils, boards and commissions, home rule legislation more than four decades ago changed that. Since then, elected councils and trustee boards have controlled budgets, thereby providing voters a direct voice in choosing those who will tax them for local government and schools.
McMaster contends the consolidation legislation does not pass muster in how school budgets will be handled during the transition to the countywide district.
The bill takes away the power of the present trustee boards in the three districts and puts it in the hands of a transition committee, with the six elected legislators comprising the Orangeburg County Legislative Delegation having authority to approve budgets until the countywide board is elected and takes control in 2019.
“Simply put, our constitutional separation of powers prohibits local legislative delegations from retaining budgetary control,” McMaster states in his veto message.
McMaster is urging lawmakers to make a change in the legislation and return it to him for his signature. But that may not be as simple as it seems.
The Legislature can vote to override the governor’s veto, then proceed as outlined in the legislation or pass a separate bill next year that changes the transition budget process. Leaving the bill as is, it appears, opens the door to a legal challenge to the transition process.
Or lawmakers can sustain the veto and the present bill dies, meaning legislation will have to be reintroduced and go through the approval process again in 2018 or after. That introduces the possibility of efforts to change other aspects of the bill and potential complications in getting it through the legislative process.
Yet with all members of the local delegation in support of the present bill, the hope would be that making a change involving the transition process causes little fuss.
The governor himself has suggested that the elected Orangeburg County Council could have final say over school budgets until 2019, eliminating his legal concern.
Or lawmakers could retain the present elected boards by going forward with elections of trustees between now and 2019, but that complicates the role of the transition committee, which includes members of the present trustee boards.
No matter how the governor’s objection is addressed, an issue involving the two-year transition should not derail the merger of three school districts into one in 2019.
But it does leave question marks about ensuring the constitutionality of the legislation and the impact election-year politics in 2018 could have.