Scoppe: SC lawmakers living dangerously, again

Associate EditorJune 16, 2014 

IT’S THE penultimate evening of the regular legislative session, and Senate Republican Leader Harvey Peeler is recounting what he considers an extraordinary series of events designed to transform the College of Charleston into the state’s fourth research university, and to do it right now.

By his telling, Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell — the soon-to-be president of the school — trampled over his beloved Senate’s traditions in order to help a majority of the Senate force this unvetted concept onto the Senate calendar. Then, when Mr. Peeler and Senate Education Chairman John Courson blocked that bill, the House hijacked one of Mr. Peeler’s pet bills and turned it into a vehicle for the proposal, and Mr. McConnell threatened to resign as lieutenant governor in order to force Mr. Courson to take that position and end his career as a senator, and the Senate has been in an uproar all day after Mr. Courson trumped Mr. McConnell by resigning as president pro tempore, effectively forcing Mr. McConnell to stay on through this week.

Which brings us to Wednesday night, when the Senate takes up Sen. Peeler’s hijacked bill that has become the Research University of Charleston bill. He reads from a letter from the head of the state Commission on Higher Education that complains that he has no idea “what this bill would create, how it would be governed or how much it would cost.” Since the Senate Education Committee has been robbed of the opportunity to hold hearings on the bill, the senator says, we still don’t.

“Why does this bill need to be placed on a fast track?” Sen. Peeler asks. “I’m not necessarily opposed to the expansion of the College of Charleston. My question is why all the backroom deals? Why all the darkness? Why no debate? … What in the world can be that important for somebody to play that kind of tricks? … What on earth is in this College of Charleston expansion bill that you don’t want us to see?”

They are excellent questions, and the happy news is that the Senate did not approve the bill that night, but sent it to a conference committee where Mr. Peeler has been asking his questions for the past week and a half.

Unfortunately, the same level of scrutiny was not given to even more complicated legislation that was very nearly rushed through, and even more important legislation that was rushed through during those frantic final hours of the session.

There’s nothing extraordinary about lawmakers transforming bills that address one topic into vehicles to address a different topic, or using other procedural shortcuts as the clock ticks toward the mandatory adjournment at 5 p.m. on the first Thursday of June. What was extraordinary about this session was how many lawmakers were perfectly willing to allow these shortcuts on ideas that were so new and on bills that were so complex and simply so huge that the chance for mistakes was recklessly high.

We all ought to worry when the Senate votes 22-15 to bypass the committee, over the objection of the committee chairman, to get to a proposal that no one outside of Charleston had ever even imagined until Mr. McConnell threw it out there a couple of months ago as what sounded like an off-hand alternative to the more radical idea of having the liberal-arts college subsume the actual research university in Charleston, the Medical University of South Carolina.

We all ought to worry when, after nearly two years of public hearings and debate and negotiation, with radical changes along the way, the House adopts sight-unseen what remained of the ethics-reform bill after the House-Senate conference committee finished it. Particularly since the ethics law is so badly written that lawmakers have made inadvertent errors every time they’ve amended it. Particularly since mysterious changes seemed to occur every time the legislation moved from one stage to another in the House.

We all ought to worry about the fact that the Senate would have done the same if it hadn’t come to the floor late enough for a single senator to prevent a vote before time ran out, kicking it over to today’s wrap-up session.

And none of that is as worrisome as what happened with the state budget.

Normally, after the House passes the budget and the Senate passes the budget, a conference committee negotiates a compromise. Not this year.

This year, House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White and Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman worked it all out in secret. And unlike the one other time in our state’s history that this happened, they were not at all coy about it. Everybody knew what was going on, and nobody seemed to mind. What a great deal; no messy conference committee.

Indeed. No messy negotiating in public, which allows legislators, and voters, to get a sense of what deals are being considered, when there’s still a chance to change them. Admittedly, the conferees play games with the open meetings law, but they do hold public meetings to talk about their differences, to announce where things stand and, eventually, to adopt the agreements they have negotiated in secret. And that final deal generally is in the public domain for at least a few hours before a vote.

This year, on the final Wednesday of the regular session — just hours before Sen. Peeler brought the Research University of Charleston bill to a screeching halt — Messrs. Leatherman and White presented their fait-accompli budget to their colleagues, for immediate votes. Actually, they presented their oral explanation of the budget, and answered legislators’ questions. And since the negotiations had been secret, with no progress reports, people didn’t really know what to ask.

So, for example, House members didn’t think to ask whether Rep. White had acquiesced to the Senate plan — which had never even been debated in the House — to upend a quarter-century of beachfront management policy and allow homeowners on Debordieu Beach to rebuild their seawall, thus stealing what little bit of the public beach remains in front of their property and increasing erosion to adjacent properties. Opponents said they assumed that Mr. White would have mentioned something that significant.

It’s never safe for a legislator to assume that what’s important to him will be deemed important enough to negotiators to merit mention. And the more moving parts a deal has — and the budget has thousands — the less safe that assumption is. Which is one reason it’s irresponsible to approve anything more than the simplest of conference reports without having a chance to review a written copy.

Of course, not everyone was in the dark. As a senior member of the Finance Committee, Sen. Peeler was in the loop enough to be able to liken the budget negotiations to “the final minutes of a yard sale.” At the center of the bidding war: that Research University of Charleston.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached

at cscoppe@thestate.com.

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