Colleges and the State - Why so much red tape?

COLUMBIA, SC (WMBF) - When you're investigating how South Carolina spends your tax dollars, your first stop shouldn't be the Governor's Mansion. It should be the State Capitol Building in Columbia.

The man you want to see is Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence). The only problem was - he didn't want to see us.

But Grand Strand college administrators need his help.

While they're trying to expand, in some cases offering job training courses that could relieve the region's unemployment rate, state leaders have their hands deep inside the college construction process.

Harold Hawley, Horry-Georgetown Technical College's vice president for business affairs, tells WMBF News the red tape means that by the time an idea actually becomes a building that's open to students 2 ½ to 3 years have passed.

"It holds not only Horry-Georgetown back but any college or university back," he said.

His college is installing a state-of-the-art training center for dental assistants and hygienists. Getting this project approved faster may have meant getting people back to work faster.

It turns out, there's a plan in the General Assembly that would do just that by slashing some of the red tape.

If passed, "we would easily see a year to year-and-a-half shaved-off that cycle," said Hawley.

It's not just Horry-Georgetown Tech supporting this plan. So is Coastal Carolina University.

Administrators there are also tired of the delays and meetings that drag on and on.

According to Stacie Bowie, vice president and chief financial officer at CCU, it is rare for state leaders to turn-down a project. That's not the problem.

"They have postponed projects," she said, "which that again leads to a delay in that timing of going out for construction."

This is just the kind of issue getting the attention of the state's new governor, Nikki Haley. During a stop in Myrtle Beach last Friday, we asked her if she supports giving colleges a bigger say-so in how they spend their money.

"Yes, absolutely," the Republican governor said. "What we need to do is take the red tape out of the way for our higher education system. The longer and the more processes we make them go through, the more it costs them to do the construction they need to do."

Amen, say college administrators, who point out the longer the delays, the higher costs are likely to be when they're finally allowed to buy materials and hire laborers.

Gov. Haley also told the Myrtle Beach crowd she supports doing away with South Carolina's Budget and Control Board. Many political analysts believe it's an odd institution designed to force governors to share power with, among others, two of the most powerful legislators in Columbia.

Sen. Hugh Leatherman is one of them.

We asked Gov. Haley if she has told Leatherman about her desire to see colleges have greater leeway on building projects.

"Well, they're very aware of how we feel about this," Haley said, not referring to Leatherman by name. "We will continue to have talks with the legislature on what we think is right."

WMBF News also wanted to talk with Sen. Leatherman about this. But after weeks of phone calls and e-mails to his spokesman, we still were not given a date and time to interview him. So on Tuesday we headed to Columbia where senators were in the midst of the budget debate.

We arrived right before the Senate went into session and phoned his spokesman to let Sen. Leatherman know we had arrived. Senate staffers also told us they would give Leatherman a hand-written note if we wanted to write one, which we did.

Senators began the day not by debating the budget but discussing next week's softball game against the House.

Then they welcomed school kids from Easley, honored Pres. Obama and the military for eliminating Osama bin Laden, then welcomed more school kids from the Upstate, congratulated a band that went to Scotland, and finally made their first recorded vote (on a measure concerning prescription drugs) at 12:08 p.m.Tuesday, a full hour after WMBF News arrived.

Then around 12:45 p.m., senators broke for lunch (catered by Olive Garden and brought in by the Republican Caucus, we were told.)

We waited for Sen. Leatherman but he never joined us outside the Senate. So, on the advice of Senate staffers, we again wrote him a note asking for an interview.

The Senate did not go back into session until 1:38 p.m.

Important to remember, because Sen. Leatherman would soon try to claim he didn't have time to meet with us during the lunch break.

After waiting some more, we spied Sen. Leatherman in a room just off the Senate floor and set-up our camera in the adjoining hallway. Just as he was about to emerge, a security guard told our photojournalist he could not record video there. However, our microphone was still on, so we were able to record audio of the testy exchange that ensued.

When asked if he would give an interview, Sen. Leatherman replied, "I'm on the floor working the budget. Sorry."

Asked why he couldn't have met with us during the lunch break, Leatherman's face grew stern.

"I had 30 minutes to each lunch. And I'm supposed to take my time with you?" he asked. "When I needed to get back on the floor."

"You couldn't take 10 minutes?" we asked. "It seemed like a longer than 30-minute break."

"I was back on the floor. Sorry," he said, and walked through a door that leads to the Senate chamber.

Indeed, our camera caught Leatherman after lunch doing some wheeling and dealing on the Senate floor.

But we also recorded video of him just standing alone, staring off into space.

The next day, we e-mailed two of Leatherman's staffers asking for a written response to whether he supports cutting red tape for colleges and abolishing the Budget and Control Board, which he sits on.

Thursday afternoon, we received a response from Robby Dawkins, one of the staffers:

"As you may know, Sen. Leatherman was on the floor yesterday till 1 a.m. this morning and they are now back in session again, still working on the budget.  He will be happy to respond when they finish the budget.  Sen. Leatherman learned a long time ago that if he were to leave the floor during session our area loses that is why his policy is to not leave the floor."

According to the legislature's website, the bill is stuck in the Senate Finance Committee, which Leatherman chairs.

The measure passed the House unanimously in March.

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