05/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Leadership Vacuum in South Carolina

In recent weeks, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford has been making the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows and speaking out in our nation's major newspapers, explaining why he might become the only governor in the country to turn down federal stimulus funding for health care, education, and public safety.

The national audiences he is appealing to should be aware that Governor Sanford is not speaking for his state. In the real South Carolina, our leaders, Republican and Democrat, have watched in dismay as he has worked to further his political prospects at the expense of our state, touting grand principles with complete indifference to their practical effects.

Governor Sanford's stubborn insistence on holding hostage $700 million in stimulus funding designed to plug the gaping holes in South Carolina's decimated budget invites what the Republican chairman of the state's Senate Finance Committee describes as "budgetary Armageddon."

If he prevails, South Carolinians in every corner of the state will feel the effects.

Education budgets at the agency I oversee, cut by hundreds of millions of dollars already, will remain in shreds. More than 2,600 public education employees will lose their jobs, including 1,500 classroom teachers. State funding for schools will fall to its lowest level in a decade.

College tuition costs will skyrocket. Law enforcement, compromised by budget cuts already in a state with one of the highest violent crime rates in the nation, will be further jeopardized, prompting the Governor's own appointed head of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) to break ranks and publicly describe his decision as "devastating." More than 3,000 criminals could be released. State troopers will be let go; prisons may close.

None of this real-life devastation seems to matter as much to the Governor as protecting the purity of his anti-government principles.

The leadership vacuum so well illustrated by the current crisis is nothing new to South Carolinians. We have paid a heavy price over six long and fruitless years for a governor who consistently puts politics ahead of policy and who cares little for what it costs his state in stalled progress and human suffering.

Former governors, Republican and Democrat, understood clearly the role of an engaged government in setting the stage for state prosperity. Their intensive and consistent focus on attracting jobs, improving public schools, building infrastructure, and creating opportunities to overcome poverty, bequeathed to Governor Sanford a state with an abundance of promise and opportunity.

Today, after years of shortsighted governing bent on reducing government at any cost and innumerable impasses between the governor and his Republican legislature, foreclosures in South Carolina are on the rise. Poverty has increased. Roads and bridges across the state are in disrepair. Prisons are understaffed and past capacity.

Unemployment, which was rising steadily even before the recession, has soared, reaching second-highest in the nation and heading rapidly for first place.

Education is now also endangered after improving substantially in recent years. Instead of tackling urgent needs including tax reform, adequate resources, and equitable funding to improve schools, we have been mired in useless debate over private school vouchers, engineered entirely by out-of-state ideologues attracted here by the governor's indifference to public schools.

South Carolina's leaders have done what we can to move our state forward without the benefit of an effective chief executive. In education, we have become a national leader in public school accountability and in expanding choices for parents and students within the system of public education. We have pursued innovations like teacher pay-for-performance and done the legwork on comprehensive tax and funding reform.

We will regain our momentum. But we will never recover the time wasted over the lost decade of this governor's two terms.

Governor Sanford hopes his model of uncompromising fiscal austerity will make him the new face of a revitalized Republican party. He may seek to spread his style of leadership to the rest of the country as a candidate for president in 2012.

In his home state, we look forward to the day when solving problems will be more important than political stunts, when progress will matter more than abstract principle and personal ambition, and when the needs of real people assume their rightful place as the top priority of the governor who represents them.