If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again could be the slogan of the 2015 South Carolina Legislature.
Those lawmakers will return to Columbia more than once this summer, trying to settle on a budget for the state’s next fiscal year, which starts July 1. They also hope to pass bills now before joint House-Senate conference committees, trying to smooth out differences in versions of proposals passed by both the bodies, and a proposal on how to use a $300 million-plus state surplus.
Those issues were unresolved when the General Assembly’s regular session ended at 5 p.m. Thursday, drawing to a temporary close a Legislature that started in January with high ambitions – including road repairs and ethics reform – and left town Thursday with much left undone.
A compromise on the roughly $7 billion general fund budget will be taken up by lawmakers when they return to Columbia for a three-day special session that starts June 16.
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Lawmakers likely will return to Columbia a second time to sustain or overturn any budget vetoes by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and pass a plan on how to use surplus money.
“We could end up back a couple of times this summer,” said Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, one of six members of a conference committee tasked with working out differences in the state budget while lawmakers are off next week.
Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who also chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said there is no question lawmakers will pass a budget by July 1.
His House counterpart, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, said he expects a budget compromise to be ready the week lawmakers return June 16.
“It’s our intent to get people their paychecks,” White said.
White also expects lawmakers to return to Columbia a second time, after the special session ends June 18, to handle vetoes and agree on what to do with $322 million in surplus money.
Leatherman and House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, will call members back to Columbia for the second session. “We’ll be back,” said Lucas, who completed his first session Thursday as House speaker.
Lucas praised the House, saying it had a tremendous year. But he expressed frustration that the Senate did not act on ethics reform and road repair bills passed by the House.
“Certainly, we’re not as happy as we could have been,” Lucas said. But, he added, those topics can be addressed when the next regular legislative session starts in January.
Leatherman, who leads the Senate, said a road repair plan should have passed this year. A roads proposal will be a priority in the Senate in January, he added.
The surplus spending proposal that will be before House members in two weeks includes:
▪ A one-time $800 bonus for state employees – excluding teachers – who make less than $100,000. (Teachers would not get bonuses because they are paid by local school districts. They also receive raises based on their academic degrees and years of experience in the classroom.)
▪ $150 million for counties to repair state roads
▪ $70 million to pay for incentives offered to Volvo, a move that would substitute surplus cash for state borrowing
However, getting the surplus proposal through the House and Senate, and then getting the two bodies to agree, could take longer than three days, stretching into a second special session, later in June.
Some legislators want more of the surplus money – at least $200 million – to go to road repairs.
Spending surplus money on roads is “an immediate solution to some of the most egregious problems, ” Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said Thursday.
Davis led a Senate filibuster over the last three weeks of the session to block a gas tax increase to pay for road repairs. But he said he is not planning to block the surplus-spending proposal. He also said he will let senators act on how to spend $85 million in state savings, the proposal he filibustered to block the gas tax increase. “I’ve made my points.”
Gov. Haley said Thursday the six-month-long legislative session should be shortened.
"Everything is slow-walked up until April, then (legislators) go away for spring break, and then it’s fast-walked right after that,” said the governor, a former Lexington state representative. “We lose a lot of wasted time.”
Haley also bemoaned top issues left undone as lawmakers went home Thursday. “It’s four and a half years and we still have no ethics reform.”
Added Haley, “Maybe next year.”
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Where the issues stand
Lawmakers left Columbia on Thursday, wrapping up their six-month regular session. However, they likely will be back for two special sessions. Here’s where top issues stand now:
Passed into law
Body cameras: Lawmakers want police officers to wear body cameras, and a bill is headed to the governor’s desk requiring law enforcement agencies and the state Law Enforcement Training Council to develop a policy on their use. The bill, which became a priority after the fatal shooting of an unarmed man in North Charleston by a police officer later charged with murder, creates a fund to assist police agencies in buying the cameras and for related costs. State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, expects it could cost millions of dollars to equip state and local officers.
Domestic violence reform: Republican Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill into law Thursday that doubles to up to 20 years the prison time for offenders. Convicted batterers also could be barred from possessing guns for life. The measure – an attempt to address South Carolina’s routine ranking as among the nation’s worst in the number of women killed by men – also includes educating middle-school students about abuse prevention, and requiring judges to have police reports on abuse allegations and the criminal records of suspects before they set bond for accused abusers.
S.C. State University: The S.C. State University board was fired and replaced with interim trustees who are working to erase a $20 million deficit and save the accreditation of the state's only historically black public college. The unprecedented move by lawmakers came after the school's deficit continued to rise despite staffing and spending cuts. The temporary board, led by former state Commerce Secretary Charlie Way, met for the second time this week. It was told S.C. State’s enrollment could drop by 1,200 students from last fall to 2,100 students when classes resume in August.
Could be resolved in two weeks:
Abortion: A bill to ban abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy is headed to a six-member conference committee to work out differences between House and Senate proposals. The Senate version includes exemptions for cases of rape, incest and fetal abnormalities. The House includes an exception only for the health of the mother.
Uber: A bill to allow Uber to continue to operate in South Carolina is in a conference committee. Without it, state regulators could ban Uber from its competition with taxi companies.
Wait until next year
Bond bill: After Gov. Haley helped kill a $500 million borrowing plan in the S.C. House, Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, revived a smaller $237 million borrowing plan. That proposal, including money for building projects at S.C. colleges and state armories, could be taken up again next year.
Roads: A plan to increase the state’s gas tax to raise money to repair the state’s crumbling roads died in the Senate. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, held a three-week-long filibuster, blocking the proposal. Fixing roads became the hot issue at the State House after Gov. Haley unveiled her road-repair plan in her January State of the State. The House passed its own roads plan in April, including a gas tax hike and a small income tax cut. But Davis blocked that proposal in the Senate. Democrats said Thursday Haley doomed any roads bill by insisting that higher gas taxes – opposed by some Republicans – be accompanied by a huge income tax cut – opposed by many Democrats.