Courson resigns SC Senate leadership post in spat with Lt. Gov. McConnell (update)

Posted by ANDREW SHAIN on June 4, 2014 

Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, was sworn-in as Lt. Governor of South Carolina and Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, the President Pro Tempore, of the South Carolina Senate.

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com Buy Photo

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— Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell said Wednesday that he would consider staying in office an extra two weeks if the Senate does not elect a new president pro tempore on Thursday -- the last regular day of the legislative session.

"I will not leave the state in a constitutional crisis," he said.

McConnell planned to resign Thursday to start work as president of his alma mater, the College of Charleston.

But Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, took the unusual step of resigning from the leadership post Wednesday to avoid becoming the lieutenant governor. Courson said he decided to step aside after hearing that McConnell would not change his planned resignation from Thursday.

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The Senate president pro tempore, one of the Legislature's more powerful positions, is next in line to become lieutenant governor, one of the least powerful, by the state Constitution. Courson, a Richland Republican, has said repeatedly that he would not become lieutenant governor, which would require him give up the senate seat he held for 30 years to serve in the state's weak No. 2 job for six months.

The Senate has not announced plans to elect a new Senate president pro tempore. Courson and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said they did not know of a senator willing to give up their seat for a half-year stint as lieutenant governor.

McConnell said the senate will need to elect a president pro tempore who will become lieutenant governor because a legislator cannot handle some executive functions including to designate senators who can preside over the senate and submitting a budget.

"You can't contort the constitution to have it fit your needs," McConnell said.

Martin said, with the exception of ratifying acts, the senate can find ways to work around temporarily the duties of the lieutenant governor.

The lieutenant governor, who is president of the Senate, and the House speaker ratify bills approved by the General Assembly before they go to the governor. Senators hoped to delay McConnell's resignation until June 19 when the legislature is expected to complete its work for the year and end any possible Constitutional conflict over ratifying bills.

McConnell, a Charleston Republican, and GOP Gov. Nikki Haley have said the lieutenant governor’s office should not go unfilled, even though it has remained vacant for lengthy periods six times since 1879. McConnell was Senate president pro tempore in 2012 when he was elevated to become lieutenant governor after Ken Ard's resignation.

Courson said blamed McConnell's decision to leave office before the legislative session ends for forcing his hand to leave the leadership post he won in 2012. Courson said that as recently as last week McConnell talked about staying in office, while he worked at the college, until a new lieutenant governor assumed the office in January.

"My request to him would be serve to his term out," Courson said on the Senate floor. "Since this is such a great, important position that the governor of this state thinks is so valuable ... she (should) get on the telephone or go to Charleston and meet with the lieutenant governor and tell him how important it is for the state of South Carolina he continues to serve as our lieutenant governor."

Scoppe: McConnell should make one more sacrifice -- See out the session

McConnell said he understood that Courson was disappointed about giving up his leadership post, especially since he faced the same choice two year ago.

"But you can't enjoy the power of being president pro tempore and escape the responsibility," McConnell said.

Senators hoped to delay McConnell's planned Thursday resignation until June 19 when the legislature is expected to complete its work for the year and end any possible Constitutional conflict over ratifying bills.

McConnell has said that he wanted to leave this week because of questions about him presiding over the Senate while debate continued on proposals to make the College of Charleston a research university.

Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said Thursday that McConnell pulled tricks and participated in a conflict of interest two weeks ago over the measure to help his future employer.

Peeler said McConnell did not call on him and recognized another senator who proposed fast-tracking the college bill. Peeler said Courson was threatened to "toe the line" on pushing the College of Charleston bill or be forced into becoming lieutenant governor.

"When we hung that portrait (of McConnell in the Senate chamber), I praised that man," Peeler said, "but with the actions of the last two weeks. I won't feel the same."

Courson said he and McConnell have been friends for 35 years and he recommended McConnell for job at the College of Charleston.

Courson said he has no plans to speak with McConnell.

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