A state senator said Tuesday that a bipartisan education reform package is being held hostage in the S.C. House until the Senate passes a bill to expand the College of Charleston into a research university.
State Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said he received a threat “that if we didn’t pass the College of Charleston expansion that the speaker would kill ‘Read to Succeed.’ ”
Peeler refused to say who delivered the threat, but the Charleston bill has been a top priority for Lowcountry lawmakers in the House and Senate, including Republican House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
Asked to respond, Harrell said, “Senator Peeler came up to me ... late the other night (last Wednesday), he used an expletive and cussed at me. That was basically the extent of our one-sided conversation.
“The bill is expected to be debated (Wednesday) for second reading in the House, but there are a lot of members who have issues with it,” Harrell said.
Attempts to reach Peeler for response to Harrell’s comment were unsuccessful.
The tension between two of the state’s most powerful GOP lawmakers underscores the high-stakes negotiating that is taking place as legislators jockey to get prized proposals passed before 5 p.m. Thursday, when the gavel falls on a two-year session of the General Assembly, killing bills that have not passed both chambers.
The education bill in question, called the Read to Succeed Act, calls for a statewide reading focus in public schools, including summer reading camps for struggling readers. It also would require third-graders who score the lowest on statewide reading tests to repeat a year of school, getting reading-intensive instruction.
When the bill passed the Senate, an emotional Peeler gave an impassioned speech about how important the legislation is.
Democrats also want to see the bill passed.
Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, helped negotiate a compromise that added expanding the state’s free, full-day 4-year-old kindergarten program, now only offered in limited counties, to more at-risk students. The Senate added $24 million to the state budget to pay for that expansion, not yet approved by the House.
Gov. Nikki Haley has pushed lawmakers to add $30 million for reading coaches for all elementary schools and $4.5 million for summer reading camps.
The bill is on the House’s uncontested calendar, meaning no one has requested to debate it. But, every day last week, a vote on the bill was put off.
House Ways and Means chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, who requested one of the delays, said he wanted to put the brakes on to give lawmakers more time to review the proposal.
“Everything was flying so fast, we need to just go ahead and look at the changes we’re doing,” he said.
State Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Beaufort, said he was disappointed the bill has not received a vote yet, but he hopes that will happen Wednesday, a day before the legislative session ends.
Time is running out, and any changes the House makes to the proposal still must be approved by the Senate.
Meanwhile, the College of Charleston expansion legislation hit a snag last week in the Senate, where Peeler said he opposes it.
Now, however, the House has tied that proposal to a bill that Peeler introduced.
Peeler originally proposed allowing Clemson University, his alma mater, to forgo getting approval for some construction projects. The House changed the bill so it would benefit all colleges and universities, and added the proposal to make the College of Charleston the state’s third full-fledged research university, and sent it back to the Senate.
Peeler would not comment on whether he would support the College of Charleston proposal.