What our state government gets right and what needs more help

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With a storm breathing down the state's neck, people turn to state and local governments for leadership, safety and solutions. While government gets scrutiny year-round, maybe we should look at what's working so we appreciate it more - and examine what may need some help so that it works better.

What seems to work

Revenue. The taxman knows how to collect state sales and income taxes efficiently.

Motor Vehicles. It used to be a nightmare to get a driver's license. Now, it's not.

Public safety. No one likes seeing a blue light in the rear-view mirror, but law enforcement, firefighters, national guardsmen and emergency management officials are much appreciated when a big storm is blowing through. Their training shines.

Commerce. While the state agency could do much more for small businesses, it is outstanding in attracting large industries that create jobs for South Carolinians. Similarly, the State Ports Authority - a state agency when it wants to be - is a powerful engine for the economy.

Environment. The state departments of Natural Resources and Parks, Recreation and Tourism and the Conservation Bank generally do a good job of protecting special places and managing state land.

Services. Smaller agencies, such as SCETV, the state library, arts, agriculture and forestry, help consumers provide great services or plow through the bureaucratic processes of government to get real things done.

Tech colleges. Businesses rely on the state's outstanding system of technical colleges for special and entry-level workforce training. This is a good story that keeps getting better.

What mostly works

Judiciary. The state's judges are viewed as able and qualified, compared to other states. But backlogs and the recurring need for better technology keeps courts from running effectively.

Education. People often focus on how lawmakers shortchange public schools by appropriating millions less than the law requires. Despite too many shortfalls, we shouldn't forget the agency annually educates more than 700,000 students every year, a mammoth undertaking. Quantity is good. Quality needs work.

Higher education. The state's colleges and universities offer countless opportunities, but tuition is too high because the state has cut support significantly. With billions of dollars of infrastructure needs, higher education works but is finding itself increasingly between rocks and hard places.

Vulnerable people. More people need access to better health care. And state agencies that contract for health-related service delivery for vulnerable residents need more accountability for those hired to do the work.

What needs some help

General Assembly. There's a lot more talk than meaningful action on a plethora of measures. Yes, lawmakers annually do the most important thing they have responsibility for - the annual budget. But they fall short on long-term planning and dealing with crises that often are of their own making.

Social Services. While the agency seems to have gotten its act mostly together following the deaths of children in its care, it still is two decades behind in having a functioning child support computer system. Its fine this year: $13.5 million.

Energy. As this summer's red-hot $9 billion nuclear plant debacle illustrates, there's a whole lot of finger-pointing going on in the energy sector - from lawmakers who created a problem but are looking for scapegoats to a seemingly pointless Public Service Commission to utility officials trying to keep their heads down. Meanwhile, the state is missing out on the renewable energy revolution - mainly because it doesn't have a state energy policy.

Health and Environmental Control. The multi-purpose agency has been so stripped of veteran staff members that existing staffers are overloaded, which promotes a regulatory environment that favors less scrutiny.

Corrections. The prison population is dropping, but many locked-up non-violent offenders perhaps may be better sentenced to options less costly than prison. The agency and its kin face major staffing and training needs.

Transportation. Even though an increase in the gas tax is starting to fix roads, there are still billions of dollars of issues along with layers of bureaucracy that make fixes far from quick.

Investments. The state still has work to do to fix a hole worth billions of dollars to state pensions and how it invests money.

Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at brack@statehousereport.com.