Politics & Government

This week's Capitol Report

Week four of the 2010 legislative session

TEXTING-DRIVING: South Carolina could join a growing list of states that ban texting while driving, but in a state that relishes personal freedoms, legislators say the effort will hit a road bump if they also try to bar drivers from chatting with a phone at their ear. The measure approved unanimously Wednesday by a House Education subcommittee would prohibit bus drivers from sending text messages or using a hand-held cell phone.

UNEMPLOYMENT: Legislators want the three commissioners running the state Employment Security Commission removed after a series of flaps, including news that the jobless benefit agency faced nearly $1 million in penalties for not paying income taxes withheld from unemployment checks. The state Revenue Department cut the $950,000 tab in interest and penalties to $25,000 on $16 million in unpaid withholdings from February to May 2009.

VOTER ID: South Carolina voters would have to bring photo identification with them to polling places under a measure that cleared the state Senate on Wednesday, sending it back to the House. The bill will likely end up in a conference committee to work out differences between the two versions. South Carolina voters aren't required to have a photo ID when they vote now. Under the proposal, they would have to show a state or federal-issued ID starting in 2012.

SENTENCING REFORM: South Carolina needs to reduce the number of people going to jail for minor offenses and let more people out on parole, a legislative panel reviewing the state's sentencing policies said in a report released Tuesday. Sentencing policies of the past 10 years have sent more people to prison for nonviolent crimes, making those offenders account for nearly half the state's 25,000 inmates, reported the Sentencing Reform Commission. That reduces the number of beds available to house the most violent offenders. South Carolina spent almost $400 million on prisons operations in 2008, up from less than $65 million in 1983. The report said South Carolina could save more than $300 million dollars over the next five years by not having to build new prison space if the recommendations are enacted. It projected another $92 million could be saved in operating costs.

CIGARETTE TAXES: South Carolina's schools chief called on legislators Thursday to increase the state's lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax to the national average and put half of the additional revenue toward education to stop looming teacher furloughs. Leaders of anti-tobacco and education groups joined schools Superintendent Jim Rex to ask legislators to add $1.27 to the per-pack tax - unchanged at 7 cents since 1977. Increasing the tax will prevent youth from picking up the habit, encourage adults to quit, and reduce health care costs, said the Democratic candidate for governor. Rex wants half of the new money, projected at $239 million, to temporarily go to education, until state spending returns to 2008 levels. He proposes that most of the rest go toward Medicaid. A 50-cent tax hike proposal is in the Senate.

WARRANTLESS SEARCHES: South Carolina legislators have tweaked a bill allowing officers to conduct warrantless searches by requiring them to first verify the person is on probation or parole. The House Judiciary Committee approved the measure Tuesday that allows officers to bypass going to a judge for a warrant before searching people on probation or parole. They can search the person, the vehicle the person owns or is driving, and any possessions, such as a purse. Democratic Rep. Todd Rutherford of Columbia said verification is needed to prevent officers from searching anyone they wanted, using the excuse they thought he was on probation. The bill moves to the House floor. The Senate approved it last year.

TEACHER SALARIES: South Carolina would scrap incentive pay for teachers earning a prestigious national certification under a cost-cutting measure given initial approval by legislators. A House Ways and Means subcommittee voted Tuesday to halt the $7,500 annual stipend for teachers earning national board certification, limiting it to those who already hold the certificate or are in the process. South Carolina would suspend new loans that pay upfront application fees for teachers and not pay stipends for teachers renewing their certificate for 10 more years. Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, said she fears phasing out the program will cause many of the best teachers to move into administration to earn more money.

PROPERTY TAXES: South Carolina legislators are weighing whether communities should lose tax dollars or gain potential property sales. State senators are considering a proposal to offer a business and homeowner real estate tax break. Real estate agents say a property tax law that shields homeowners from dramatic tax increases as values rise hurts sales because new buyers get slammed with the increase. They say the problem is worse for commercial property. But local governments could lose $44 million under proposals to keep tax bills from rising when property is sold.

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THE BUZZ

Is any candidate a true original?

Last week Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dwight Drake got a little salty after he felt Republican gubernatorial candidate Gresham Barrett had stolen one of his trademark lines: That a governor needs to wake up thinking about how to bring more jobs to South Carolina.

Drake kicked off his campaign with the line, and Barrett said something similar at a recent candidate forum. In response, Drake issued a Web video Jan. 29 accusing Barrett of taking his idea.

But when Drake unveiled his jobs plan last week, state Republicans cried "J'accuse!"

Drake's idea was to give employers a tax break for every person they hired who had been on unemployment for 60 days. The mechanisms are different, but the bill is very similar to one introduced by Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee. Democratic rivals and Republicans rushed to point out that Drake's idea was wonderful - when the Senate approved it last year.

"The Senate Caucus would like to know how much we owe Dwight Drake for lobbying for our jobs plan today," quipped Senate GOP spokesman Wesley Donehue.

One other note about Drake's plan: Drake claims the plan is revenue neutral because the unemployed do not pay income taxes. In fact, the unemployed do pay income taxes on the benefits they collect - and hiring a worker collecting benefits is a requirement for an employer to qualify for the tax break.

'Youth' according to Andre Bauer

The Buzz - and others - is noticing how young children make awfully adult decisions according to Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who is still explaining his recent comments comparing children who receive free or reduced meals in public schools to stray animals.

In a stump speech, Bauer said a nurse told him about a 10-year-old girl having a baby in South Carolina. The Greenville News' Tim Smith later reported the state had not seen such a case since 2006, although the data from 2009 is not yet complete.

In an op-ed published in today's The State, Bauer said as a child he qualified for a reduced-priced lunch, was ashamed by the stigma, and, therefore, refused the aid.

Bauer said he instead cut grass, washed cars and did other odd jobs for his neighbors at age 11 to pay for the school lunches for him and his sister.

The Buzz, like the lieutenant governor, is alarmed by a world where fifth- and sixth-graders can have babies and earn a living.

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Livington gets Spears endorsement

Maj. Gen. Bob Livingston of West Columbia made it official last week, announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination for S.C. adjutant general.

Livingston, who commanded 1,800 S.C. National Guardsmen last year in Afghanistan, also won the endorsement of current Adjutant General Stan Spears, who is not seeking re-election.

Retired Col. Steve Vinson read an endorsement on behalf of Spears saying: "The Guard today is in a great transitional period, a transitional period that requires not only leadership but a deep understanding of the core values that drive our brave soldiers and airmen. I know of only one man that can meet those high standards and that is General Bob Livingston. Now is the time for all of us to get behind his efforts and see him through the primary and general election."

Livingston said, "General Spears' endorsement means a lot to me. He was my battalion commander when I was a scout platoon leader ... about 27 years ago. His support represents a transfer of goals and desires between two senior military commanders.

In civilian life, Livingston is president of Gregory Electric, a multi-state contractor with more than 350 employees. He is on Gen. David Petraeus Central Command staff coordinating with 60 coalition nations.

Greenville News

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Governor's public schedule

Gov. Mark Sanford's publicly announced schedule for next week is:

Tuesday - Cabinet meeting, 10 a.m., Governor's Conference Room, Wade Hampton Building, State House grounds

Thursday - St. Andrews Rotary Club, 12:30 p.m., Bessinger's BBQ, 1602 Savannah Hwy., Charleston

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Quote of the week

"We're very confident of our legal position in this - that the process we have is constitutional."

- Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, on last week's judicial elections. McConnell had said the General Assembly would delay the elections because of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the process.

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SCHMOOZING

When and where lawmakers will eat and drink for free next week - and who's buying.

WEDNESDAY

Noon-2 p.m. Lunch, Palmetto Club, by the S.C. Section American Waterworks Association - Water Utility Council

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