This week, legislators will drive to Columbia from all corners of South Carolina. While they will be traveling on crumbling roads and bridges, they will have $1.2 billion in new money to spend.
Will those same representatives and senators do something to fix the state’s roads this year? And how will they handle other top issues?
A look at what lawmakers face this session and who to watch:
Fixing our roads
S.C. drivers have paid the same amount at the pump in state gas taxes for nearly 30 years. Each time you fill up, 16.75 cents a gallon – $1.68 for 10 gallons – goes to the S.C. Department of Transportation for road and bridge repairs.
But the Transportation Department estimates it needs an additional $1.5 billion a year to maintain, preserve and expand the state’s crumbling transportation system. Of that, $1 billion a year is needed to maintain, preserve and modernize – not expand – the existing road and bridge system, the Transportation Department says.
Some lawmakers, including state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, argue money already in the system and growth in the state’s general fund budget could pay for road repairs. Critics say Davis’ plan would require making huge cuts in all other state spending.
In addition, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has said she would veto any gas tax hike that does not include a “massive” income tax cut.
Some Republican state budget writers and Democrats say the state cannot afford to dedicate more of its annual revenues to roads or cut income taxes when more state money is needed to pay for schools, state agency needs and flood damage costs. They say the state must increase its gas tax to pay part of the cost of road repairs.
Key players in fixing your roads:
▪ State Sens. Sean Bennett, R-Dorchester, Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, helped push a Senate Republican Caucus roads plan at the end of the 2015 session. The GOP plan would raise about $700 million a year more for roads from higher gas taxes but also cut income taxes by about $700 million a year.
▪ State Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, as the leader of the Senate Democrats, will have to work with Republicans to work out a golden compromise – cutting income taxes, increasing gas taxes and reforming the state Department of Transportation.
Doing more for rural schools
South Carolina needs to spend more on its poor, rural schools, according to a 2014 S.C. Supreme Court ruling. And the state’s highest court wants a progress report from the Legislature a week after its session ends.
The first glimpse of how much more more lawmakers will spend on schools will become evident the week of Feb. 15, when the House Ways and Means Committee writes the first draft of the state budget that takes effect July 1.
This fall, a state House panel made dozens of recommendations, including giving school districts with extreme poverty about $660 more in state money for each impoverished student they educate. A panel also has been working in the Senate.
Key players in doing more for rural schools:
▪ State Rep. Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, chaired the House task force that came up with proposals, which House members are expected to introduce in the form of bills.
▪ State Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, and state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, two of the most vocal education advocates in the Legislature, will have a strong influence on the proposals that emerge. Both chair education budget subcommittees.
Paying for the flood
The rains of October washed away roads, bridges and crops across the state. Gov. Haley has said she will request $114 million from state lawmakers for flood costs. She also is asking the federal government for $140 million to repair flood-damaged housing.
But that leaves up in the air how much the state will pay – if anything – to farmers who lost more than $375 million in damaged crops, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Crop insurance is expected to cover only about a third of that cost.
Key players in paying for the flood:
▪ State Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, has already said he plans to spend some state money to help farmers. As the House’s chief budget writer, Ways and Means chairman White will be in charge of first draft of the budget and decide how much money will pay for flood repairs.
▪ State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, will be instrumental in the Senate because Lower Richland, which Jackson represents, was among the hardest-hit areas in the state. Some roads in Lower Richland washed away and still are closed, awaiting bridge replacements.
Aftermath of S.C. shootings
▪ More money needed?
Last year, Walter Scott was shot and killed after fleeing from a traffic stop. A video contradicted North Charleston police officer Michael Slager’s claim that Scott had taken his stun gun, leading authorities to charge the officer with murder.
In response, lawmakers approved body cameras for police officers, giving law enforcement agencies a time line to submit policies to the Law Enforcement Training Council. But lawmakers only approved $3.4 million for body cameras and video storage, not nearly enough to outfit the state’s police officers.
▪ Expanding the deadline for background checks?
On June 17, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Jasper, and eight of his parishioners at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church were shot and killed. Accused gunman Dylann Roof, who faces the death penalty, was able to complete his purchase of a gun that police say he used in the shooting after a background check was not completed within three days.
In response, Democratic lawmakers have proposed some measures to curb gun violence, including lengthening the time a gun purchaser must wait for a background check to be completed to 10, 14 or 28 days.
▪ Rethinking our history?
After photos emerged of Roof posing with a Confederate flag, lawmakers approved removing the the rebel banner from the State House grounds.
But there has been discussion of removing other divisive symbols from the State House, including a monument to white supremacist “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, a former S.C. governor, U.S. senator and member of an all-white, post-Civil War militia responsible for lynching African-Americans.
The Tillman debate has reached the campuses of Clemson and Winthrop universities, institutions that Tillman played a role in founding. Both schools have buildings named for Tillman.
The debate also has spread to a Greenwood war memorial that segregates slain soldiers by race and a Confederate Naval Jack flag that flies in a chapel at The Citadel.
Key players will be:
▪ State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, who has introduced a bill that would require background checks be completed before a buyer could take possession of a gun.
▪ S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, who has said the S.C. House will not debate any more Confederate monuments or street names.
A bill that would ban abortions at 20 weeks into pregnancy is close to passing with exemptions being negotiated for instances of rape and incest.
The House Republican Caucus has more pro-life legislation on its agenda, including a proposal to ban dismemberment during abortion, except when necessary to save the mother’s life.
Democrats will fight abortion-restriction proposals.
Key players will be:
▪ State Rep. Wendy Nanney, R-Greenville, whose ban on abortions at 20 weeks is close to becoming state law.
▪ State Rep. Mia McLeod, D-Richland, who filed a proposal to make it more difficult for S.C. men to receive erectile-dysfunction medication, a none-too-subtle message to the male-dominated, GOP-controlled General Assembly about the dangers of legislating about the bodies of South Carolinians.
3 key players
3 key players
▪ Gov. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, will be influential because her veto pen can force two-thirds of House members and senators to agree in order to overcome her opposition. If she does not sign off on top issues – including road repairs and school spending – she could kill the proposals.
▪ Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, is tasked with guiding senators to a compromise to repair the state’s crumbling roads. The fractious Senate has at least three loose confederations – Republicans, Democrats and the GOP’s libertarian-leaning William Wallace Caucus – and Leatherman must get at least two of the three to agree to get anything done. In addition, Leatherman chairs the Senate’s budget-writing committee, meaning he will be among those who decide how much money is spent on roads, state agencies, state employees, flood damage and schools.
▪ S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, led the overwhelmingly Republican S.C. House to pass ethics bills and a gas tax increase last session, both of which died in the Senate. This year, Lucas is expected to push the House to pass education bills, in response to the Supreme Court’s schools ruling, and proposals to address the state’s pension system, which faces a shortfall of up to $11 billion in 2043, according to a Legislative Audit Council report.