The South Carolina House voted Tuesday to show its displeasure with the state’s public safety director by stripping his salary from their version of next year’s budget.
The 76-20 vote for the amendment to eliminate Leroy Smith’s position and pay came during the House’s second day of budget debates on Tuesday. While only the governor can fire a Cabinet official, the House can refuse to authorize or fund the position. The Senate would also need to approve the amendment for it to take effect. Tuesday’s House vote would survive any potential veto from Gov. Henry McMaster.
State Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, said trooper morale is low and road deaths are increasing as the agency is having trouble hiring and keeping troopers. “We have a very serious problem in the Department of Public Safety,” he said during the debate. “And that problem is at the top.”
House leaders have been targeting the Department of Public Safety for more than a year, with a series of hearings exposing problems at the agency. That included high turnover among troopers and support staff, lengthy delays in funding grants to nonprofits, and complaints about favoritism and inconsistent discipline among employees.
State Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said troopers live in fear of their jobs due to Smith’s emphasis on high standards, dismissing troopers when the public files a complaint whether warranted or not. “When you drive home and you don’t see any troopers on the road, it’s not because they’re somewhere else… it’s because they don’t want to work there any more,” he said.
Ironically, it was Democrats who defended the man chosen by former Gov. Nikki Haley. State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, R-Orangeburg, said current Gov. McMaster has the right to hire or fire Smith without interference from the legislature.
“The very reason we’re standing here today (is) because the current director, unlike previous directors, does not allow the General Assembly to run the agency,” she said.
The debate had slight racial overtones, with Rutherford claiming Smith had complained to the Legislative Black Caucus he felt targeted by legislators because he is African-American (although Rutherford disputed that). Another opponent State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, said Gov. Haley also defended her appointee in private meetings by insinuating legislators wanted Smith gone because of his race. Neither Smith nor Haley have ever made such comments publicly. Another black Cabinet appointee Department of Juvenile Justice director Sylvia Murray resigned in January under pressure from legislators over problems at her agency (although her interim replacement is also African-American).
Smith released a brief statement several hours after the vote, but did not respond to the criticisms against him. “It was disappointing to hear how some members of the House of Representatives voted on the budget amendment (Tuesday),” the statement read. “I, along with other dedicated employees at the South Carolina Department of Public Safety, work very hard to make South Carolina a safe place for its residents and visitors. As always, I look forward to continue working with legislators and other local and state partners on enhancing public safety in the great state of South Carolina.”
However, Gov. Haley’s former spokesman and adviser Rob Godfrey went further as he backed her old appointee. “What makes Leroy Smith different is that he’s far more concerned about keeping the people of SC safe than he is babysitting politicians,” Godfrey tweeted after the vote.