Politics & Government

New South Carolina laws that go into effect in July 2018

Need to know: New SC laws for 2018

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South Carolina’s gas tax rose another 2 cents this week, the second of six annual hikes on the way for the second-lowest gas tax in the country.

State lawmakers passed the 12-cents-per-gallon tax increase in 2017 to fix South Carolina’s roads, a top priority for years as the state’s highway system crumbled and gaping potholes rattled cars.

After the most recent hike, you will kick 20.75 cents to the government for every gallon you buy at the pump this year.

But that’s just one new change in state law that will affect South Carolinians, starting this month. With a number of new laws and the 2018-19 state budget going into effect within the first week of July, here are a few more ways the S.C. Legislature could change your life this year.

Cutting SCE&G's power bills

S.C. lawmakers reconvened in Columbia during the last week of June to pass a bill lowering South Carolina Electric & Gas Co.'s electric rates. The new law temporarily would slice $22 from the $27 per month the typical SCE&G customer now pays for the utility’s failed attempt to build two more nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Fairfield County.

The S.C. Public Service Commission voted Tuesday to enact the Legislature’s new rate, but SCE&G has filed a lawsuit seeking to block that rate from going into effect.

If that effort fails, SCE&G customers could see their electric bills shrink, beginning in August. They also could get a one-time credit for the nuclear surcharge they paid in April, May, June and July — since lawmakers made the rate cut effective as of April 1.

Barring a judge's ruling, the rate cut would remain in effect until December, when the PSC is set to decide who — SCE&G’s customers or the utility itself — will have to pay for the failed construction project.

Putting armed officers in SC schools

In passing the $8 billion state budget late last month, state lawmakers also sought to hire more resource officers for S.C. public schools.

They included in the budget one proviso — a one-year law — that waives the state-imposed $10,000 pay cap for working state retirees so retired police officers can come back and work as school resource officers.

Another proviso pays $2 million for a pilot program to begin hiring school resource officers for some of the state's poorest districts.

The provisos mark the first time S.C. state government has paid for school resource officers. State lawmakers felt compelled to act after 17 students and teachers were shot to death in a Parkland, Fla., school on Feb. 14.

About half of the state's 1,195 public schools had a resource officer as of January 2017. Putting 590 new resource officers in schools would cost more than $60 million in the first year, according to estimates from the Department of Education.

Beefing up school security

The budget also includes up to $15 million in state lottery-funded grants for S.C. school districts to install new door locks, security cameras, metal detectors and life-saving medical equipment.

A bill signed Monday by Gov. Henry McMaster requires school districts to come up with a school safety plan before July 2021 that includes responses for fire, severe weather and active shooter situations. Schools must conduct at least one fire drill, one active shooter/intruder drill and one severe weather/earthquake drill each semester.

A separate budget proviso also requires the State Law Enforcement Division and the Department of Education to study whether and how school security could be improved with measures such as bulletproof and key card access doors at school buildings, radio frequency ID chips in student identification cards, mental health services and more school resource officers. That report is due Dec. 31.

Medical marijuana study committee

Efforts to legalize medical marijuana in South Carolina have failed in the Legislature. But lawmakers are willing to study it.

Lawmakers included in the state budget money for the Medical University of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina’s College of Pharmacy to study treatments for chronic pain, cancer, nausea, glaucoma, drug abuse, autoimmune disorders and other ailments that one day could be approved in a medical pot bill.

The report is due when the Legislature returns to Columbia in January.

Studying the sale of Santee Cooper

Santee Cooper lost $4 billion as a minority partner in SCE&G’s failed nuclear project, drawing the scorn of S.C. lawmakers and the governor's office.

The state-owned power company has been hammered for not alerting S.C. lawmakers and the public of the Summer project’s flaws, for secretly funding bonuses that rewarded SCE&G’s executives for their performance on a failing project, and for covertly lobbying against McMaster’s effort to sell it.

Its customers — including those who buy Santee Cooper’s power through the state’s 20 electric cooperatives — have paid more than $530 million for the Summer project in the form of higher power bills and still face future rate hikes.

McMaster has pushed lawmakers to sell Santee Cooper in order to pay off its $4 billion in nuclear construction debt. But lawmakers have been hesitant. Still, they passed a proviso in the budget to form a nine-member committee to study the idea and make a recommendation to the Legislature.

The group, with members appointed by the governor and State House leaders, will decide whether selling Santee Cooper is a good idea, pick which assets of the multi-faceted power behemoth could be sold, study the utility’s finances and pension liabilities and evaluate Santee Cooper’s long-term contract with the co-ops, among other things.

The committee, however, cannot begin the process of selling Santee Cooper by accepting or fielding offers.

Santee Cooper transparency

The nuclear debacle led state lawmakers to pass a budget proviso forcing the Moncks Corner-based utility to become more visible and accountable.

Starting this month, Santee Cooper must live-stream its public meetings and save the videos so members of the media and public can keep tabs on one of state government’s largest agencies.

Faith-based adoption

A proviso passed with the 2018-19 state budget allows faith-based adoption agencies to turn away LGBTQ parents and same-sex couples who want a child of their own.

The proviso prohibits the Department of Social Services from discriminating against agencies for declining to provide any service that “conflicts with … a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of the faith-based child placing agency.”

The Human Rights Campaign and S.C. Equality have blasted the provision, arguing the proviso allows publicly funded adoption agencies to discriminate against a range of prospective parents, including same-sex couples, single mothers and LGBTQ individuals. S.C. Equality plans to challenge the proviso in court, according to its director, Jeff Ayers.

Supporters argue the provision protects religious freedom.

Anti-Semitism

Starting this month, S.C. colleges will have a new rubric to use when deciding if an on-campus crime was motivated by anti-Semitism.

That definition for “anti-Semitism” — drafted by the U.S. State Department — was passed as part of the state budget despite concerns from free-speech advocates and pro-Palestine groups that it could be used to chill political criticism of Israel on S.C. college campuses.

It also was quietly opposed by S.C. colleges who viewed it as unnecessary when investigating alleged civil rights violations.

State flag committee

State lawmakers were surprised to learn this year that South Carolina has no official flag design. As a result, the appearance of the palmetto tree and the shape of the iconic crescent can vary from flag to flag, depending on the manufacturer.

That’s why the budget creates a five-member S.C. State Flag Study Committee to research and propose an official, uniform and historically accurate state flag design.

The committee’s members will be picked by State House leaders and top officials from the Department of Administration and Department of Archives and History. It must propose the new design by next February.

Sanctuary cities

Sanctuary cities do not exist in South Carolina, but it's an election year, so GOP state lawmakers — under the direction of Republican McMaster — moved to pre-emptively ban them through the state budget.

Their proviso forces S.C. cities and counties to prove to the State Law Enforcement Division each year that they are not flouting federal immigration laws. Any city or county that SLED determines is breaking the law would lose its state funding.

Reach Wilks at 803-771-8362. Follow him on Twitter @AveryGWilks.
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