The S.C. House of Representatives elected state Rep. Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, as its speaker Tuesday.
The House also changed its rules to establish a committee to oversee agencies that report to the governor, limit the speaker’s terms and ban state representatives from having leadership political action committees, which contribute money to other members’ campaigns.
The changes in the House’s leadership and rules come in the wake of the fall of former Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston. The decade-long speaker, the most powerful politician in South Carolina, pleaded guilty to charges of misusing campaign money and agreed to resign, entering a plea deal that requires him to tell federal and state authorities about any illegal activities by others, including lawmakers.
“The events that transpired 83 days ago rocked the very foundation on which this body stands,” Lucas said during his acceptance speech Tuesday. “These events tested our citizens’ faith in government. These events, and the resulting responsibilities of this job, tested even my faith at times.”
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Lucas had stepped up as acting speaker when Harrell was charged with public corruption. He immediately formed committees to overhaul the state’s ethics laws and address its crumbling roads.
Lucas said the House plans to prefile about 15, easy-to-understand bills to reform those ethics laws.
The House also plans to deal with the state’s roads as quickly as possible, he said, adding a solution will take cooperation from the Senate, governor and local governments.
Public education also will be a priority, given a recent school-equity decision by the S.C. Supreme Court. Lucas said he hopes to move away from the “minimally adequate” standard of education to providing a 21st century education that prepares high school graduates for the workforce.
Lucas is set to appoint House members to committees on Wednesday, including the Education committee and Ways and Means, the House’s main budget-writing panel.
Representatives also elected Tommy Pope, R-York, as speaker pro tempore, the No. 2 position in the GOP-controlled House.
Pope, who first gained national attention when he prosecuted Union child murderer Susan Smith, has said he plans to run for governor in 2018.
Neither Lucas nor Pope were opposed.
Among the rules changes adopted Tuesday by the House were:
• Limiting the speaker and speaker pro tempore to five consecutive terms, or 10 years
• Requiring the speaker to consult with the majority and minority House leaders before appointing representatives to conference committees that meet with state senators to work out differences in legislation. The proposal also requires a member of the minority party be named to each conference committee.
• Barring House members from having leadership political action committees, which contribute money to members’ campaign. Lucas said the committees were used to exceed the legal limits on how much can be contributed to a politician’s campaign.
• Forming an executive oversight committee that will oversee state agencies that report to the governor
“I will appoint the true bloodhounds of this body to help us provide this critical legislative function,” Lucas said.
Lucas, a state representative since 1999 who was elected speaker pro tempore in 2010, also outlined goals for the House, beginning with punctuality. “It’s the people’s time,” Lucas told representatives, who often are late in starting their daily business. “Let’s make sure we use it wisely.”
Lucas said he will emphasize empowering House members. Too much power in the House has been concentrated in hands of the speaker, Lucas said, adding holding on to that power becomes more important than doing great things with the power of the position.
Lucas outlined a series of steps — some small, others larger — that he plans to take to share power.
For instance, he said he plans every month to post job vacancies, appointed by the speaker, to allow House members the chance to submit resumes from their constituents.
Representatives also need to be transparent, he said. “We should have nothing to fear from sunlight, but the public has much to fear from the darkness of secrecy. It’s going to be a new, brighter day in the House.”
Lucas also said he wants to improve public relations, saying public officials have a responsibility to speak directly to the people and media without relying on press releases.