Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Legislators need more issues training

By Andy Brack

The opposite of a leader is a lemming, a political metaphor for a follower who will do just about anything, including blindly jumping off a cliff, to back a leader.

South Carolina’s General Assembly is full of lemmings – so much so that one top lawmaker privately confided this week that some legislators wouldn’t know where babies came from if they had not been personally involved.

Part of the reason for the vast number of lemmings in South Carolina politics is the institutional structure of the legislature.  In other words, committees.  Legislators get experience on a range of specific issues through committees to the exclusion of other issues.  For example, a House member may serve on the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and learn a lot on environmental issues.  But because she isn’t on Ways and Means, she doesn’t have as much familiarity with budget issues.  Therefore, she relies on colleagues who deal with budget issues to provide information and voting recommendations about those issues.

That’s how committees are supposed to work – as structures to help lawmakers use time more wisely and deal with multiple issues.   Unfortunately these days, serious issues often fly through committees so fast that there’s little deliberate discussion before a meaningful vote occurs – and then they move on to the next big thing.

Another reason for so many lemmings is lawmakers face a great number of issues on which they seem to have a hard time keeping up with details.  They have, for lack of a better description, a knowledge gap on proposals outside their narrow committee scope.  I would argue, for example, that at least half of the General Assembly’s 170 members really don’t understand the state budget or have a big-picture view of how government is funded.  (Some people say I’m very low in the estimate.)

While changes to the General Assembly’s committee system likely aren’t in the tea leaves, there is something lawmakers could do to bone up better on the issues they face:  Attend a special annual training session to get non-partisan educational information on top issues impacting the people of South Carolina.

Call it an “Institute of Government.”   Such an idea has been successful in North Carolina in helping to build camaraderie among partisans.  It also has allowed legislators to deepen their understanding of issues.

From a practical perspective, such an Institute wouldn’t cost much.  Legislators already meet for an organizational session each December.  They could spend an extra day in Columbia to hear from leading university professors on everything from budget and health care to education, environment and growing jobs.  Because many of the professors already are state employees, they could do presentations as part of their jobs.

Several political insiders and legislators – Republicans and Democrats – who we asked about the idea said annual training would be a good thing.

To get something like this moving, however, would require the House’s and Senate’s leaders or caucus leaders to support educational training by requiring lawmakers to attend.  Mandatory attendance is necessary if the exercise is to have an impact.

Because lemmings, you know, do what they’re told.  If they’re not told to attend, they won’t.

So now we read that House lawmakers have voted to cut the amount that can be awarded for negligence in civil lawsuits to $350,000 at most.

Proponents claim such tort reform is needed to attract jobs, which seems to be the new rationale for anything that anti-lawyer forces use to get what they want.  Opponents of this next iteration of tort reform say reform isn’t needed because the system already works – that of 136 jury verdicts for personal injury in 2007 and 2008, only two involved damages of more than $7,000.

We urge state senators to look beyond the rhetoric when considering this measure that would take away people’s rights to receive compensation for corporate or personal negligence.  Instead of listening to special interests, think about it this way:  If you lost your arm in an accident caused by an employer’s negligence, wouldn’t you want to sue for more than $350,000 in damages?  Or is having use of your arm for the rest of your life worth less?

talkback@columbiacitypaper.com


By Andy Brack
The opposite of a leader is a lemming, a political metaphor for a follower who will do just about anything, including blindly jumping off a cliff, to back a leader.South Carolina’s General Assembly is full of lemmings – so much so that one top lawmaker privately confided this week that some legislators wouldn’t know where babies came from if they had not been personally involved.Part of the reason for the vast number of lemmings in South Carolina politics is the institutional structure of the legislature.  In other words, committees.  Legislators get experience on a range of specific issues through committees to the exclusion of other issues.  For example, a House member may serve on the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and learn a lot on environmental issues.  But because she isn’t on Ways and Means, she doesn’t have as much familiarity with budget issues.  Therefore, she relies on colleagues who deal with budget issues to provide information and voting recommendations about those issues.That’s how committees are supposed to work – as structures to help lawmakers use time more wisely and deal with multiple issues.   Unfortunately these days, serious issues often fly through committees so fast that there’s little deliberate discussion before a meaningful vote occurs – and then they move on to the next big thing.Another reason for so many lemmings is lawmakers face a great number of issues on which they seem to have a hard time keeping up with details.  They have, for lack of a better description, a knowledge gap on proposals outside their narrow committee scope.  I would argue, for example, that at least half of the General Assembly’s 170 members really don’t understand the state budget or have a big-picture view of how government is funded.  (Some people say I’m very low in the estimate.)While changes to the General Assembly’s committee system likely aren’t in the tea leaves, there is something lawmakers could do to bone up better on the issues they face:  Attend a special annual training session to get non-partisan educational information on top issues impacting the people of South Carolina.Call it an “Institute of Government.”   Such an idea has been successful in North Carolina in helping to build camaraderie among partisans.  It also has allowed legislators to deepen their understanding of issues.  From a practical perspective, such an Institute wouldn’t cost much.  Legislators already meet for an organizational session each December.  They could spend an extra day in Columbia to hear from leading university professors on everything from budget and health care to education, environment and growing jobs.  Because many of the professors already are state employees, they could do presentations as part of their jobs.  Several political insiders and legislators – Republicans and Democrats – who we asked about the idea said annual training would be a good thing. To get something like this moving, however, would require the House’s and Senate’s leaders or caucus leaders to support educational training by requiring lawmakers to attend.  Mandatory attendance is necessary if the exercise is to have an impact.  Because lemmings, you know, do what they’re told.  If they’re not told to attend, they won’t.So now we read that House lawmakers have voted to cut the amount that can be awarded for negligence in civil lawsuits to $350,000 at most.  Proponents claim such tort reform is needed to attract jobs, which seems to be the new rationale for anything that anti-lawyer forces use to get what they want.  Opponents of this next iteration of tort reform say reform isn’t needed because the system already works – that of 136 jury verdicts for personal injury in 2007 and 2008, only two involved damages of more than $7,000.We urge state senators to look beyond the rhetoric when considering this measure that would take away people’s rights to receive compensation for corporate or personal negligence.  Instead of listening to special interests, think about it this way:  If you lost your arm in an accident caused by an employer’s negligence, wouldn’t you want to sue for more than $350,000 in damages?  Or is having use of your arm for the rest of your life worth less?
talkback@columbiacitypaper.com

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