The glaring failures of this year’s Legislature happened under the watch of new leadership in the South Carolina House and Senate. But House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman faced very different challenges and produced very different results, lawmakers say.
House members generally say Lucas, a Darlington Republican, is doing a great job – building consensus and passing a proposal to update the state’s ethics laws and a roads funding bill that could have withstood Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto threat.
Lucas also has made good on his promise to make the House more open and democratic, a pledge he made when he succeeded Bobby Harrell after the Charleston Republican resigned amid an ethics scandal.
“Speaker Lucas is probably one of the most caring speakers that we’ve had in the 17 years I’ve been here,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland. “He tries to listen to both sides and take the best course of action.”
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But state senators assess Leatherman, their new leader, differently in a year that saw that chamber reject ethics reform and never vote on a roads plan.
Some Republicans say Leatherman, a Florence Republican, did not do enough to include them in developing proposals or failed to communicate effectively. Others blame the Senate’s culture for its failures this year, saying senators must be willing to vote to stop single senators, whose views represent the fringe, from blocking legislation.
Lucas and Leatherman have very different jobs.
In the House, the overwhelming GOP majority can pass bills without having to compromise with Democrats or smaller factions of Republicans who can buck the majority.
The Senate is overwhelmingly Republican, too. But, under Senate rules, each of the factions in that body – Democrats and Republicans, divided into moderates, conservatives and a Libertarian, limited-government faction – can block legislation, objecting to it before it comes up for debate, mounting filibusters and offering unlimited, time-consuming amendments.
Advocates of the Senate’s rules, including Leatherman, say they allow for more debate and compromise. But other senators said the chamber’s dysfunction reached new levels this year.
“It was not a very good year for passing legislation – one of the worst that I’ve seen in 31 years in the General Assembly,” said Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York.
‘Rubbed ... people the wrong way’
Under Leatherman’s leadership, the Senate’s divisions have amplified, some senators say.
Some GOP senators blame Leatherman – a moderate Republican elected to lead the Senate with the backing of minority party Democrats – for maneuvering that alienated some conservatives, including allies of Republican Gov. Haley.
“It’s a very unilateral leadership approach that has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way,” said Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield.
Before senators elected Leatherman their leader last year, Massey warned against consolidating too much power in the hands of the 84-year-old Florence Republican, who also chairs the Senate’s budget-writing committee and sits on a state board that approves borrowing and building projects.
Massey said some Republicans were upset this spring when Leatherman’s Senate Finance Committee passed a roads bill that increased the state’s gas tax to pay for repairs, but did not include any income tax relief or Transportation Department reforms, two demands of Gov. Haley.
On several issues, Massey added, Leatherman’s approach has been, “ ‘This is the proposal. This is what we’re going to do.’ ”
But Democrats and moderate Republicans defend Leatherman, praising his willingness to cross the political aisle to solve problems and noting he is a leader of a fractious body with, “too many chiefs and not enough Indians,” as Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, describes the Senate.
Leatherman “does not put party above what he thinks is right,” said Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, defending him.
“I would hate if we were like Washington D.C., where only if the majority party agrees with something, we pass something,” Sheheen said. “That would awful.”
Right wing to blame?
On the roads proposal, Leatherman and his allies said the plan always was to get the bill to the Senate floor for debate on whether to add income tax relief and Transportation Department reforms – two conditions any gas tax hike had to have to avoid Haley’s veto.
But senators never had a chance to debate the bill because, Hayes said, of “factors that are mostly beyond (Leatherman’s) control.”
In part that is because, over the last decade, the Senate has been changing as limited-government, libertarians gain seats, Hayes said.
Those libertarians are making their presence felt.
This year, for instance, state Sens. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, and Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, two members of the GOP’s small but vocal libertarian wing, filibustered legislation in the last month of the session, eating time off the clock and killing the roads debate for the year.
Democrat Sheheen, like Republican Hayes, blames the GOP’s rising right wing for blocking Senate action.
“If you have people elected that think government can’t do anything right, and that we don’t need government, then you’re going to have ... a lot of people who think we don’t need to do anything,” Sheheen said.
‘Got to start taking some votes’
Some senators, both Republicans and Democrats, say the Senate’s rules and culture must change.
Hayes said a rules change might be in order to prevent a single senator from blocking legislation. But, even without a rules change, senators could have forced a debate on the roads bill this year if they had wanted, he added.
“We’ve got to have senators who are willing to vote to sit another senator down,” Hayes said. “Democrats are reluctant to do that because that’s their main source of power in the Senate. The fact that they can filibuster ... gives them a voice.”
Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said he only has voted to sit a senator down twice. Both times it was Republican Bright.
But, Lourie added, the reluctance of senators to sit down a fellow members could change over the next year or two. “We’ve got to start taking some votes.”
Sen. John Courson, the Richland Republican who preceded Leatherman as president pro tem, said a lack of communication between Haley and Leatherman impeded action in the Senate.
“The problem that exists between the governor and the president pro tempore is political and personal, and makes it extremely difficult” to get work done in the Senate, Courson said.
Asked whether Leatherman has been an effective leader, Courson declined to respond. Instead, he said, a leader has to be able to communicate with the “divergent members of the Senate.”
‘What the Senate believes is best’
Leatherman said his job does not include pushing legislation in the Senate because Haley approves of it.
“The S.C. Senate needs to do what the Senate believes is best for this state,” he said. “I don’t craft legislation … around the threat of a veto. My mind always asks what’s best for this state.”
Asked whether he is responsible for his body’s failure to pass a roads fix, Leatherman said “no.”
“Virtually everybody … knew this would not be a one-year issue,” Leatherman added. “It’s too huge.”
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Politics inside the State House
The gap between Democrats and Republicans is not the only political divide at the State House
Republicans control the House by an almost 2-1 majority, making it difficult to impossible for Democrats to block or force compromise on GOP-backed legislation. The GOP holds 77 seats to Democrats’ 46. One seat is vacant.
Republicans are the majority in the Senate, holding 28 seats to 18 for Democrats. But that GOP majority hardly is fool-proof because Republican senators break into three camps at times:
▪ A half-dozen moderates, including Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who often form coalitions with Democrats
▪ A handful of limited-government, Libertarian-minded conservatives who frequently buck Gov. Nikki Haley’s agenda and her allies in the Senate
▪ Conservative Republicans, many allied with Haley, who recently have said they feel like a minority within the Senate
Lawmakers return Tuesday to Columbiafor a special three-day session to deal with issues left undone when the regular session ended June 4
The S.C. House will take up a proposal to spend a $322 million state surplus on road repairs, a bonus for state workers and incentives for Volvo. Some lawmakers will argue for more than the proposed $150 million for roads.
The state’s new fiscal year starts July 1. However, six lawmakers trying to strike a budget deal will not meet again until other spending proposals have been resolved, including the surplus. Instead, the Senate is expected to pass a bill to keep state spending at current levels until a budget can be passed.
Six lawmakers will meet Tuesday to try to work out differences between House and Senate proposals to ban abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy, including whether to include exceptions for rape and incest.