Scoppe: Majority rule? Not in the SC Senate

Associate EditorMarch 16, 2014 

— THE PARTIAL texting ban that the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced earlier this month had a poison-pill provision that pre-empts the complete texting bans that Columbia and Greenville and other cities have adopted, in return for outlawing texting by new drivers. Let the outrage sink in.

Actually, the committee also approved a complete ban on texting while driving, but a committee member put a minority report on the bill — which is not a report at all, but an objection. That meant the only bill that had a serious shot at passage was the one that takes more than it gives.

But senators who care more about public safety than delusions of jack-booted police trampling over our God-given right to careen down the interstate at 80 mph with our eyes and thumbs glued to a tiny screen with the addictive qualities of nicotine weren’t giving up so easily.

On Wednesday, Sens. Paul Thurmond and Vincent Sheheen put up an amendment to transform the new-drivers ban into the total texting ban. Mr. Thurmond explained their plan, so there was no confusion, and by an overwhelming 37-4, the Senate voted to take up that amendment, which meant we were moments away from the Senate adopting the amendment and sending a real texting ban to the House.

Only the Senate did not take up the amendment. As soon as the vote was announced, Sen. Shane Martin objected to further consideration. And before you could say “Crazy Caucus,” the Senate had moved on to the next bill.

So much for majority rule. Or even super-majority rule.

Of course, the S.C. Senate never has believed in majority rule. The Senate is where the tail wags the dog: If a single senator objects to a bill, that bill will not be debated unless two-thirds of his colleagues vote to leapfrog it ahead of other bills.

That should seem an easy enough task for a bill for which 37 of the 46 senators just voted their support. It is, as Sen. Sheheen told me, a bill that will save far more lives than just about anything else the Legislature might do this year. Well, except passing that ignition-interlock bill that the Senate passed last spring and a House panel has been sitting on ever since.

Getting the texting ban back up for debate is not an easy task, though, because of that whole “leapfrog” thing. There’s a limited number of priority slots, and even more limited time for debating priority bills, so putting it on special order means that other bills will not be put on special order.

Like, say, a bill designed to prevent the courts from halting this year’s elections, by declaring the election commissions in 37 counties unconstitutional.

Just a few minutes before the texting-ban vote, Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin informed his colleagues that he had just received an attorney general’s opinion that explained that the law that created those commissions was almost certain to be declared unconstitutional, just like Richland County’s law was last year. That’s because the law is not really a law, but 37 separate laws that were wrapped up in a single bill to try to snooker the courts into thinking they don’t violate the constitutional prohibition on laws that apply to a single county.

The only difference between the Richland law and those other 37 is that when the inevitable lawsuit comes, a judge might not be so kind as to stay his ruling so the elections can proceed under the unconstitutional arrangement. Particularly since the Legislature is on such clear notice that those laws violate the constitution.

Sen. Martin has proposed to reconstitute all 46 election boards in a standard way. It doesn’t solve the political problem of legislators controlling the commissions, but it removes the constitutional cloud that hangs over our elections. His committee approved that bill a week earlier with no one expressing any objections until after the vote, when that other Sen. Martin said he would add a minority report. So this bill won’t get a vote either, unless at least 31 senators are willing to jump it ahead of their priorities.

Even that might not seem such a big deal, until you realize that bills that don’t clear the Senate by May 1 have practically no chance of even being considered by the House, and nearly halfway through this session, the Senate has managed to dispose of only three items that were on a priority status: the abolition of the Budget and Control Board, the ethics reform bill and the guns in bars bill. To senators’ credit, two of those were important.

Larry Martin pushed through rules last year that were supposed to reduce the gridlock, by limiting each senator to three blocks at a time. Only that doesn’t apply to minority reports, or to temporary blocks like the one Shane Martin placed on the texting-ban bill. If anything, the situation is worse — not as a result of the new rule but as a result of what precipitated it: a growing determination by a handful of senators to ignore the very real needs of our state in pursuit of their fetishes.

The good Sen. Martin’s lecture on constitutional law ended and the vote on the texting bill behind it, the Senate worked quickly through the rest of its uncontested calendar, and then got back to its fifth day of debate on the fourth controversial matter it has taken up this year: the bill to ensure that state employees hang up the phone if they get a call from a citizen asking where he might go to enroll in Obamacare.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com. or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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