During the 2015 session that starts Tuesday, lawmakers will be driving issues ranging from finding money to pay for the state’s multibillion-dollar road-repair needs to legalizing medical marijuana.
A look at some of the key lawmakers and the issues that each champions that will dominate the session:
Rep. Rita Allison
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Allison, R-Spartanburg, is the first woman in more than a decade elected to chair a House committee. One of the 21 women in the 124-member House, Allison leads the Education and Public Works Committee, which must help address the state Supreme Court’s recent school-equity decision. That ruling could force the state to spend more on K-12 education. Her committee also could deal with legislation to change the operation of the Department of Transportation, which manages the state’s crumbling roads.
Sen. Tom Davis
Davis, R-Beaufort, will be a leader in the effort to legalize medical marijuana. Last year, he championed a successful bill to allow use of cannabidiol to treat epilepsy. He now plans legislation to establish protocols for growing, extracting and dispensing cannabidiol. Over the summer, Davis also chaired a committee that studied the use of medical marijuana, producing a bill that would allow doctors to prescribe pot, subject to state regulation.
Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman
After more than three decades in the General Assembly, Leatherman, R-Florence, was one of South Carolina’s most powerful legislators even before he was elected the Senate’s president pro tempore last spring. That election came with controversy: Leatherman was accused of a mounting a coup. Leatherman also is the Senate’s chief state budget writer and chairman of gate-keeping panels that decide how much money is spent on college projects and to pay state agency directors. The question this session: How will Leatherman use his new power and on what issues?
House Speaker Jay Lucas
Lucas, R-Darlington, will be the top leader to watch in the House. Lucas has been a representative since 1999, but this is his first session as speaker. Lucas succeeded former Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, who entered a guilty plea to charges of misusing campaign money for personal expenses and resigned. Since taking over the House’s top job, Lucas has pushed for tougher ethics legislation and created a committee to study roads, attempting to tackle two top issues likely to dominate the session. Getting the House to tighten the state’s ethics laws and deal with the multibillion-dollar deficit in road funding will be a test of the new speaker.
Sen. Gerald Malloy
Malloy, D-Darlington, is a Senate wheeler and dealer, not afraid to negotiate or filibuster to make his point. He also is willing to partner with senators on the opposite end of the political spectrum, including the Senate’s ultra-conservative William Wallace Caucus, made up of a dozen Republicans. In the past, Malloy has been a leader on the issue of sentencing reform, which led to fewer inmates in state prisons by keeping more nonviolent offenders out of jail.
Sen. Shane Massey
Massey, R-Edgefield, openly criticized Leatherman’s election as Senate president pro tem, accusing his fellow Republican of taking part in a well-orchestrated coup. Massey said the added position — Leatherman already was head of the Senate’s budget-writing committee — gave Leatherman too much power. One of only two senators to vote against the Florence Republican, Massey is a lawmaker to watch: Does the rebel face retaliation for his outspoken opposition to the state’s most powerful politician?
Rep. Weston Newton
Newton, R-Beaufort, was elected the first chairman of the newly created House Legislative Oversight Committee, which will oversee state agencies, including the embattled Department of Social Services. The committee’s creation is part of the Legislature’s first effort to fulfill its check-and-balance role for executive agencies. Newton, now in his second term, also had a seat on two House panels studying possible solutions to two big problems – ethics reform and road funding.
House Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope
Newly elected to the House’s No. 2 position, Pope likely will not be as watched in 2015 as he was in 1995, when he was prosecuting child murderer Susan Smith. Even though his new position traditionally has not carried much power, eyes still will be on the former solicitor. Why? The York Republican is the first candidate formally to announce that he will run for governor in 2018, kicking off the campaign to succeed term-limited Gov. Nikki Haley.
Rep. Gary Simrill
Since the summer, Simrill, R-York, has chaired a House committee studying how to deal with the state’s multibillion-dollar deficit in the money that it needs to repair and expand its roads system. Simrill has proposed giving roughly half of the state roads to counties to maintain. (Counties said, effectively, “No thanks.”) He also hasn’t sworn off raising the state’s 16.75 cent-a-gallon gas tax, but is looking for other solutions. One proposal would cut the gas tax but also remove the sales tax exemption on gas sales. That would add the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gas sales in addition to a lower per-gallon tax. Simrill also wants to put a referendum on the 2016 ballot asking voters whether they favor increasing the state sales tax by a penny on the dollar to pay for road needs.
Sen. Katrina Shealy
Shealy, R-Lexington, has been on a panel of state senators tasked with overseeing the embattled Department of Social Services, which reports directly to fellow Lexington Republican Haley. Shealy has prefiled a bill to abolish Social Services, creating a new Department of Family Protective Services to manage the state’s child and family protective services, including child-welfare investigations and the foster-care system. Politicos also will be watching to see if Shealy, who faces re-election in 2016, and Gov. Haley, a onetime Shealy mentor, reconcile after exchanging harsh words in 2014 over the operation of Social Services.
Rep. Mary Tinkler
Tinkler, D-Charleston, won the seat previously held by former House Speaker Harrell for two decades. Historically, the House seat has been Republican, meaning Tinkler can anticipate a tough re-election bid in 2016. In the meantime, what Tinkler — a member of the minority party in the heavily GOP House — accomplishes during her possibly short tenure will be worth paying attention to. She got started early, prefiling the “Corruption Prevention Act of 2015” to reform campaign laws, including requiring lawmakers to get approval from an independent ethics body before reimbursing themselves $500 or more from a campaign account.
Rep. Brian White
White, R-Anderson, has chaired the House’s main budget-writing panel for four years, deciding how roughly $7.5 billion in general fund money is spent. For this session, White has pre-filed a bill to suspend again state law requiring lawmakers to give local governments almost 5 percent of the state’s general fund revenues from the previous fiscal year. That suggests local governments could see less money than what state law says they should receive. White’s actions on road and education funding also will be worth watching.