Reforming DHEC gets tougher as time goes by

The handwriting was on the wall at a recent Senate subcommittee meeting when the only person allowed to speak was an opponent of putting the state Department of Health and Environmental Control under the auspices of the governor.

More to the point, the speaker was DHEC commissioner Earl Hunter, who has little to gain and much to lose from a major restructuring of the agency. Advocates for change had to sit silently while Hunter voiced his objections to a bill carried over from last session at the Senate Medical Affairs subcommittee meeting.

Now the subcommittee plans to strike the main purpose of the bill — to make the agency part of the governor’s cabinet.

Sen. Darrell Jackson’s statement at the meeting that he hadn’t heard there were any serious problems with DHEC says more about Jackson than it does about DHEC’s operations. His obtuseness about agency operations doesn’t negate the need for change.

But no one should be surprised at this turn. Lawmakers generally abhor turning over power.

Still, momentum to change the agency was strong after a series of stories in The (Columbia) State newspaper last year chronicled problems at the agency. The newspaper later found many examples of lawmakers contacting the department about environmental permits, enforcement actions or other matters involving constituents.Unfortunately, that momentum proved fleeting. Bills in the House and Senate got nowhere during the last session, a session bogged down by battles over stimulus funding.

And Gov. Mark Sanford’s plummeting political fortunes since then have only made it less likely that real change will come anytime soon. We can’t look to Sanford for leadership on this or any other issue.

But change must come. DHEC officials are too timid and too quick to compromise in favor of business interests. Those business interests too often have the ear of state legislators who pressure agency regulators and control the agency’s purse strings. The agency also spends too much time “working with” businesses who have violated the law, dragging out a process that should respond quickly to threats to public health and the environment.

Political influence can’t be eliminated from a public agency whose creation and direction come from laws passed by politicians.

But we can do better than the present system. The politics of this agency’s important work — enforcing laws and regulations — should be transparent to the general public. Today it is not.

The status quo won’t do, but it seems likely that’s what we’ll have unless lawmakers are willing to turn loose of some of their power.