Politics & Government

May 7, 2014

SC senators spar over gay-themed books

Academic freedom or ‘pornography’? Colleges’ cuts fuel debate over ‘S-E-X’

State senators will resume debating Thursday whether to restore money that was cut from two S.C. colleges after the schools assigned freshmen to read gay-themed books.

For hours Wednesday, senators debated the nearly $70,000 cut by the S.C. House from the budgets of the College of Charleston and University of South Carolina Upstate.

The College of Charleston assigned students to read “Fun Home,” a graphic memoir about the author’s struggle with family and sexual orientation. The University of South Carolina Upstate assigned “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio,” about being gay in the South.

Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said the debate really was about academic freedom.

“It’s pornography, clear and simple,” countered Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, referring to “Fun Home.”

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Last week, the Senate Finance Committee voted to restore the money to the colleges, cut by the House as part of its proposal for the state budget that takes effect July 1. However, Fair sponsored an amendment to restore the House’s cuts.

Two attempts to table Fair’s amendment, effectively killing it, failed Wednesday. However, Hutto retained the podium, blocking further progress on the state budget after the narrower three-vote loss on the second tabling motion. Afterward, he said he expects Thursday’s vote to be close.

“I can assure you this is going to attract attention to this state for absolutely the wrong reason,” Hutto said, warning the legislative message sent by the cuts could hurt efforts to recruit higher-paying, knowledge-economy jobs to the state.

Hutto said the 45-man, one-woman Senate has a sexual hang-up.

“As soon as S-E-X is mentioned in a book at the college level, we’ve got a hang-up,” the Orangeburg Democrat said, adding the votes to sustain the House-passed cuts made the Senate look like a “bunch of old guys” who are offended by homosexuality.

Senate President Pro Tem John Courson, R-Richland, also spoke in favor of restoring the money.

“I do not want to see us cut another dime out of higher-education spending,” said Courson, whose district includes the University of South Carolina’s Columbia campus, adding legislators should not be in the business of trying to micromanage universities.

Opponents were undeterred.

Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said the proposed cuts amount only to a legislative “frown,” given the almost $200 million in the budget for the two schools.

Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens, added senators owed it to their constituents to deliver that frown.

Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, said he was not speaking out against the gay and lesbian community but against pornography. “This is about taxpayer-funded pornography.”

The money that paid for the books — and would be cut next fiscal year — came from the “other funds” category, which universities raise through tuition and fees but is directed through the state budget.

Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, said the state budget is the wrong way for lawmakers to express their disapproval with a college. Instead, legislators, who recently re-elected college trustees, should have contacted those school leaders about the issue, he said.

“If we don’t like what’s going on at our colleges and universities, it’s our responsibility to express displeasure,” Gregory said.

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