S.C. state senators began the 2016 legislative session Tuesday the same way they left the State House last year – in mourning.
But, behind those somber scenes, a group of state senators is working on a compromise to fix the state’s crumbling roads.
Six months ago, senators left Columbia for the year grieving over the slaying of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Jasper, killed in the June 17 mass shooting at Charleston church. On Tuesday, a black cloth was draped over the desk of state Sen. Billy O’Dell, R-Abbeville, as senators shared memories of the 77-year-old who died last week.
“To walk in and see that on that desk is tough,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said he became numb when he learned last week of O’Dell’s death. “I still feel that numbness.”
Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, who in the Legislature 26 years with O’Dell, reflected on O’Dell’s grace, humility and integrity.
State Sen. Floyd Nicholson, D-Greenwood, said O’Dell was an advocate for the rural areas he represented, adding his death was a loss for the Senate.
Senators are expected to return to their normal business Wednesday. Among their top priorities will be a proposal to raise money for road repairs.
“I’m pushing roads,” said Leatherman, who added he has asked a group of senators from both parties informally to reach a compromise on a proposal.
Leatherman said he has not given the senators a deadline but channeled the late Sen. Verne Smith’s mantra: Take your time but hurry.
“There have been work sessions with members of both parties, and there have been some very good conversations,” said state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, who is working on a compromise. Lourie said other senators worked for about three hours Tuesday on a plan.
To pass a road-repair proposal, senators will have to reach three-part agreement, agreeing how much to raise the state’s 16.75-cent-a-gallon gas tax, how to reform the S.C. Transportation Department and how much to cut state income taxes, a demand of GOP Gov. Nikki Haley.
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he would like to see senators start debating roads. Davis filibustered a gas-tax increase during the last three weeks of last year’s session, arguing existing state revenues should be used to pay to fix the state’s crumbling roads.
Davis said he has asked the Transportation Department for the cost to repair — not expand — the state’s road system.
Last year, estimates of how much more money was needed to fix the state’s transportation system ranged from an added $400 million a year up to $1.5 billion.
2 new legislators seated
South Carolina’s 2016 legislative session kicked off with a new member in each chamber.
▪ Russell Fry, R-Horry, was sworn in as the newest House member.
The 30-year-old attorney replaces former Rep. Nelson Hardwick, who resigned last May amid an investigation into a sexual harassment complaint.
▪ Margie Bright Matthews, D-Colleton, took her seat in the 46-member Senate. The Walterboro attorney was elected to the seat left vacant by last June’s shooting death of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney at the church he pastored in Charleston.
Her election put a second woman in the Senate. South Carolina hasn’t had that many female senators since 2008.