LEGALIZING teen drinking. Exempting home-school parents from paying property taxes on their homes. Liberalizing our too-liberal ethics law.
And you thought paying for roads by bringing back video gambling and requiring public schools to spend three weeks a year teaching an NRA-approved course on the Second Amendment were absurdly irresponsible. They just skim the surface of the crazy proposals legislators prefiled in the run-up to this week’s opening of the 2015 legislative session.
From the right comes the most brazen bill I can recall, S.115. Like all government property, public schools are exempt from property taxes. Sen. Lee Bright would extend that exemption to private schools and day-care facilities and home schools. That’s right, the newest front in the pay-parents-to-abandon-the-public-schools effort would let parents who teach their kids at home stop paying property taxes on those homes. The bill does require parents who use their homes for something beyond just educating their children (which I hope includes living in them) to prorate the tax break.
From the left, we find Rep. Todd Rutherford’s bill to make underage consumption of alcohol legal. Under H.3138, it still would be illegal for children to purchase or possess beer, wine or liquor. But drinking it would be fine — which means police no longer could charge kids with illegal possession just because they’re drunk. What will Mr. Rutherford come up with next? Legalizing marijuana? Oh, wait …. Never mind.
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Remember all that talk about reforming the ethics law? Apparently freshman Rep. Jonathon Hill missed it. Rather than toughening our law, H.3077 would bring back the leadership PACs that the House (following the lead of the Senate) prohibited its members from forming. Mr. Hill identifies himself as an organizer of the Anderson TEA Party, so perhaps I missed the part where the tea party did a 180 and said it liked the idea of legislators double-dipping on donations from special interests and divvying up the cash among other legislators, who then would be indebted to their legislator-donors — and double-indebted to the special interests.
A bipartisan assault
Swinging back over to the left, Sen. John Scott wants to set a state minimum wage that starts out $1 above the federal minimum wage and is adjusted upward each year for inflation. Perhaps not irresponsible, in itself. But he wants to put that requirement in the state constitution. Seriously. Right in there with the right to vote and the designation of the governor as chief executive and the attorney general as the state’s chief prosecutor and the Legislature as a bicameral branch composed of 46 senators and 124 representatives, and other matters setting forth how our government operates and interacts with us.
And just in case he can’t get the votes for S.144, he has proposed S.146, which would turn our electoral process — the most sacred element of a free society — into a public opinion polling operation, requiring the state to add an advisory question about the minimum wage to the 2016 general election ballot.
Fringe Republicans have re-filed their Obamacare nullification bills, and bills to nullify federal gun laws — most if not all of which would violate the U.S. Constitution, and threaten to eat up more time that could be used for things the Legislature actually has some say over, like, oh, our ethics law, or how we select judges, or how we set road-funding priorities, or how we improve the education we provide to children in the poorest school districts.
But Rep. Bill Chumley — you remember him: He’s the guy who used $6,400 in tax money to fly in a celebrity talk-show host to testify in support of his 2013 Obamacare nullification bill, which his GOP colleagues already had agreed to turn into a purely symbolic measure. Anyway, Mr. Chumley’s latest nullification bill, H.3022, prohibits state and local governments from complying with the federal court order requiring the state to recognize same-sex marriage. But wait, there’s more: The bill also requires that “A court of this State shall dismiss a legal action challenging” this law, should it become law. So in addition to violating the U.S. Constitution, add violating the state constitution, specifically the separation-of-powers provision.
And Sen. Paul Thurmond wants to change Senate rules so a bill that’s sponsored by 27 of the 46 senators would bypass subcommittee and committee vetting, go straight on the calendar for a vote, and leapfrog most other bills. Sort of like the legislation last year to strip the attorney general of his authority to prosecute legislators, which went straight on the House calendar; only this would be automatic. (To his credit, Mr. Thurmond also proposes to require the Senate to disclose the names of senators who request earmarks in the state budget bill.)
While some of these bills likely will make it to the floor of the House or Senate, and create that whole squander-time, increase-animosity problem that we’ve come to expect from such measures, the news is not all bad. First, most will never even make it out of subcommittee. More importantly, they are not representative of the 532 bills that legislators considered so important that they had to get them filed even before the session started. They are the outliers — or at least the outliers that we haven’t seen before.
A few good ideas
Most of the bills are either innocuous or mundane or bad ideas that aren’t horribly irresponsible, or mostly good ideas that could use a little work. A few are even genuinely good ideas.
In the latter category, and by no means new but always worth mentioning, is the series of constitutional amendments from Sen. Chip Campsen to let the governor appoint the education superintendent, agriculture commissioner, secretary of state and comptroller general. (On the other hand, Rep. Leon Stavrinakis wants to make the public elect the director of the state Insurance Department.)
Also particularly promising are measures proposed by House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin to reform the State Grand Jury system, in light of some problems that came up during the corruption investigation of then-Speaker Bobby Harrell, which I’m sure we’ll be talking more about as the session proceeds.
There also are several bills to let the governor appoint judges, subject to legislative confirmation. So far so good; this splits duties between the governor and Legislature, rather than giving the Legislature complete control of the judiciary. The problem is that they do away with the merit screening system, which needs to be cleaned up but absolutely not abandoned. Although I prefer following that approach with a reformed screening commission, Sen. Martin has proposed what might be an easier sell: Under S.180, the governor would nominate three candidates for a position, they would go through screening, and the Legislature would elect a judge from among any of those who clear screening.
Want another reason to feel better about our legislators’ intentions? Even Sen. Bright, he of the fixation on guns and Obamacare and abortion, has one and possibly two smart ideas: S.124 would prohibit senators, their family members and their law partners from representing clients before magistrates whom they essentially appoint. It would be a great way to get senators to reform the current system, in which the governor technically appoints magistrates but only the ones “recommended” by the local senator, because otherwise the Senate won’t confirm the appointment.
S.99 would tackle the problem more directly, turning the job of appointing magistrates over to the local Circuit Court judges, which might not be a perfect solution but is much better than what we have.
You might have heard that Rep. Nathan Ballentine wants to bar former legislators who commit serious crimes (see: Harrell, Bobby) from participating in the state insurance plan. It’s a good idea, which would be made better if he stripped those same criminal ex-legislators of the super-sized subsidy the taxpayers provide for former lawmakers who keep buying credit in the obscenely generous legislative pension system. Of course, in order to comply with federal law, he’d probably have to bar all former legislators from continuing to purchase subsidized credit, which ought to be done but won’t be, since everybody voting on the legislation one day will be a former legislator.
Finally, Lexington Rep. Chip Huggins wants to prohibit the Legislature from naming roads and bridges for anyone who hasn’t been dead for at least 10 years. H.3081 is a good idea; it would be improved by including state buildings and, oh, boat ramps. For that matter, it’d be great to see Mr. Huggins — joined by the rest of the Lexington County legislators — file legislation to un-name the “James R. Metts Landing,” now that its namesake has resigned as the county’s sheriff and pleaded guilty to a federal felony charge of conspiring to harbor illegal immigrants.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached
or at (803) 771-8571.