SC legislative session started, ended with controversy

ccope@thestate.comJune 5, 2014 

  • Highlights of the 2014 legislative session

    Bills – ranging from restructuring state government and a statewide texting ban – passed the General Assembly this year. Other proposals died, including one that would have directed more money to the state’s road needs. Meanwhile, two key proposals – to make the College of Charleston a research university and reform the state’s ethics laws – have yet to be decided.

    Bills passed

    Statewide texting ban: A statewide texting ban for all drivers, superseding a hodgepodge of local bans, is headed to Gov. Nikki Haley’s desk. Police would issue only warnings for the first 180 days after the ban became law.

    Emma’s Law: A law that targets drunk drivers, named after 6-year-old victim Emma Longstreet of Lexington, requires an interlock device be attached to a car’s ignition for all first-offense drunken drivers who plead guilty or are convicted of having a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 percent or above.

    Restructuring: Lawmakers abolished the State Budget and Control Board, transferring most of the state’s administrative duties to the governor in a major restructuring of state government. House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, said the act was the biggest lasting reform.

    ‘Read to Succeed’: The bipartisan bill – to hold back struggling third-grade readers and expand access to the state’s 4-year-old kindergarten program to more at-risk students – now heads to the governor’s desk.

    State fossil: The state gained an official fossil – the Columbian Mammoth, championed by 8-year-old Olivia McConnell of Lake City. The bill acknowledges fossilized mammoth teeth discovered in an S.C. swamp in 1725.

    Powdered-alcohol ban: The law bans powdered alcohol, which lawmakers said could attract underage drinkers, for a year. The proposal now goes to the governor’s desk.

    Making the adjutant general appointed: Voters will decide in November whether to change the state Constitution to allow the governor to appoint the S.C. adjutant general. South Carolina is the last state to elect the leader of its state National Guard.

    Dead bills

    More money for roads: The House passed a bill to direct an additional $41 million to roads from money the state now collects in sales taxes on cars. However, the Senate did not act on the bill.

    Obamacare nullification: A proposal that would have banned most public employees from assisting with enacting the Affordable Care Act died in the Senate on a technicality.

    Superintendent of education: Legislation failed that would have let voters decide whether the superintendent of education should be an appointed by the governor.

    Still up in the air

    Ethics reform

    The Senate held up an ethics reform bill that would require public officials and candidates to disclose their sources of private income and that of immediate family members. It also bans political action committees tied to lawmakers and narrows the time before an election that campaign contributions can go unreported. However, the bill does not establish independent oversight and investigations of lawmakers, now disciplined by their peers in the House an Senate.

    College of Charleston research university: A proposal to make the College of Charleston the state’s third comprehensive research university has been shrouded in political drama and is now in conference committee. Lawmakers can take up the conference report – and ethics reform – when they return on June 17 to take up budget vetoes.

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— The legislative session that ended Thursday started with the powerful S.C. House speaker denying he was a crook and ended with the state Senate’s leader stepping down to avoid becoming a lame-duck lieutenant governor.

In between, lawmakers passed a statewide texting ban, strengthened drunken-driving laws and bolstered K-12 education.

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In January, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson announced the state grand jury was investigating House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, on allegations that he misused campaign money and used his position for personal benefit.

On the day the legislative session opened, Harrell said he cooperated fully and voluntarily with Wilson’s investigation.

Then, he went to court to stop it, a challenge that will land before the S.C. Supreme Court on June 24.

The allegations against Harrell focused attention on an effort to reform the state’s weak ethics laws.

However, action on an ethics-reform proposal was delayed in the state Senate Thursday. But senators can take up the reform proposal again when they return to Columbia on June 17 to take up budget vetoes by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley.

The House passed the ethics bill Thursday, the final regular day of the legislative session.

The bill would require public officials and candidates to disclose their sources of private income and that of immediate family members. It also bans political action committees tied to lawmakers and narrows the time before elections that campaign contributions go unreported.

However, the bill does not establish independent investigations of allegations against lawmakers, now disciplined by their peers in the House and Senate.

Some senators said Thursday they thought Haley would veto the bill over that omission. But, in a Facebook post, Haley said she supports the measure.

"The Senate is debating whether they should pass a bill that would require them to disclose their income, and there seems to be some confusion as to whether I support it," she wrote. "Yes, I do. So any senators using me as an excuse should sit down, pass the bill, and I will sign it."

A session for education

Despite the ethics cloud that hung over the session, legislators said 2014 will be remembered for the added education spending that was approved.

A bipartisan deal passed the “Read to Succeed Act,” championed by Republicans, to hold back struggling third-grade readers until they master the subject. To win Democratic support, the act also expands the state’s 4-year-old kindergarten program for at-risk students. The bill included similarities to some of the proposals that Haley, seeking a second term, had sought.

Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said he could not remember a more important piece of bipartisan legislation.

“It’s one of those issues that crosses party lines,” Peeler said.

Democrats, meanwhile, heralded the expansion of 4K to more low-income school districts and students.

Education also was debated heavily at the college level, including questions about the decisions of colleges and academic freedom.

Throughout the budget talks, lawmakers heatedly debated academic freedom and what to do, if anything, about two S.C. schools that assigned gay-themed books to students.

Ultimately, lawmakers decided to force the College of Charleston to spend $52,000 and the University of South Carolina Upstate to spend $17,000 – the price of the books – on teaching the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Federalist papers, “including the study of and devotion to American institutions and ideals.”

What about roads and other stuff?

While lawmakers authorized spending hundreds of millions of dollars on roads last year, legislators did little this year to address a $29 billion shortfall in the amount needed for road repairs through 2033.

The House passed a bill to direct an additional $41 million to roads from money the state now collects in the sales taxes on cars. However, the Senate did not act on the bill, opposed to proposed amendments that included increasing the state gas tax.

The budget that legislators approved allocates about $15 million extra for roads.

Peeler said infrastructure needs likely will be discussed next year and House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, agreed.

But Bannister said he was disappointed that a proposal failed to let voters decide whether the superintendent of education should be appointed by the governor.

Last-minute drama

The session ended with as much drama as it started.

Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, resigned Wednesday as Senate president pro tempore to avoid becoming lieutenant governor.

Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, soon to become the president of the College of Charleston, initially had planned to resign this week.

McConnell said he was trying to avoid any conflict of interest while the Senate was considering a bill that would make the College of Charleston a research university.

On Thursday, Sen. Yancey McGill, D-Williamsburg, said he is considering running for Senate president pro tem.

That plot twist could mean that when McConnell resigns, a Democrat could end up lieutenant governor of a state dominated by Republicans.

Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.

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