Politics & Government

How SC lawmakers plan to change your life in 2019

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, shakes hands with state Representative Leonidas Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, after being elected speaker during a session at the South Carolina State House Tuesday Dec. 4, 2018, in Columbia, SC.
House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, shakes hands with state Representative Leonidas Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, after being elected speaker during a session at the South Carolina State House Tuesday Dec. 4, 2018, in Columbia, SC. gmcintyre@thestate.com

S.C. lawmakers will begin filing their proposals for the 2019-20 legislative session in a week.

Here is a look at 10 proposals, in no particular order, that could affect everyday South Carolinians.

1. Will Amazon give S.C. teachers a pay raise?

State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, has suggested giving teachers a raise using the estimated $200 million in new sales tax revenue due from online retailers, including Amazon.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision this year requires online companies to pay sales tax when products are bought in a state. The extra cash from online sales taxes would give the state a recurring source of revenue to cover the cost of the pay raise, Kimpson says.

Bottom line: Teachers will be one of the loudest groups asking for this new money. But other state workers and agencies also are clamoring for more money. And the GOP-controlled Legislature could use the $200 million windfall to cut taxes elsewhere.

On Wednesday May 16, 2018, the opening day of the legislative session, educators and their supporters from across the state traveled to Raleigh to demand more funding for public education.

2. Cracking down on teen vaping

Richland County state Reps. Kirkman Finlay, a Republican, and Beth Bernstein, a Democrat, plan to file a bill that would ban vaping on public school property and make it harder for teenagers to get their hands on e-cigarettes.

The bill would require anyone buying e-cigarettes online or by mail to prove they are 18 years old when they make the purchase and when it is delivered.

E-cigarettes often are touted as a safer alternative to cigarettes, since they don’t contain tobacco. But teens using e-cigarettes still inhale addictive nicotine.

“I really want people to be aware this has become an epidemic, really, of minors vaping, which will then lead to (nicotine) addiction,” Bernstein said. “While vaping will normally help adults (quite smoking), this will actually promote the nicotine habit for the teenager and pre-teen.”

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it plans to limit the sale of sweet-flavored e-cigarettes in an attempt to cut their appeal to teenagers.

Bottom line: The bill has a real chance to pass, given the growing national concern about teen vaping. A 2013 S.C. law banning minors from buying e-cigarettes passed with overwhelming bipartisan support but it does not require any verification for deliveries of online purchases.

The Botany Bay demonstrates what the Juul e-cigarette is and why it has recently become so popular.

Raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour

State Rep. Wendy Brawley wants to raise the S.C. minimum wage by nearly $5, up to $12 an hour. The Democrat, who represents rural Lower Richland County, said paying parents a livable wage would help solve a host of social problems.

Parents who must work multiple jobs aren’t home to supervise their kids, leading to youth crime and struggles in school, she said.

“We need to make sure the working poor aren’t destined to a life of poverty,” Brawley said.

Bottom line: Previous efforts have failed. During the last two-year session, state Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, introduced a bill to raise the S.C. minimum wage to $1 above the federal minimum wage, $7.25 since July 2009. That is nearly $4 an hour less than Brawley wants, and Scott’s bill went nowhere.

4. Fixing the state’s pension system

S.C. lawmakers aren’t done trying to save the state’s underfunded pension system.

Last year, lawmakers voted to increase contributions to the pension system by state employees and their employers, including schools, cities and counties, hoping to fill a $21 billion hole in unfunded benefits promised retirees and workers.

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, says he will file a bill to switch the state’s pension to a defined-contribution plan, like a 401(k), instead of a “fiscally unsustainable” defined-benefit plan that provides monthly payments for life, based on years worked and salary.

The proposed change would take effect for new state hires and would not affect current state employees or retirees.

Bottom line: Pension reform was overshadowed by the state’s nuclear debacle last session, but it could bubble to the forefront in 2019. Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has said he plans to push lawmakers to address the crisis, saying a solution would help the state recruit and keep public workers.

5. Will SC eliminate daylight saving time?

On top of its other responsibilities, the S.C. Legislature could stop time this year.

State Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, is reintroducing a bill that would end the practice of using daylight saving time in the Palmetto State, citing the hassle of having to adjust to the semiannual time change.

Peeler says the change would go into effect only if other Southeastern states make the same move. He noted Florida also has talked about dropping daylight saving time, and S.C. legislators would have to coordinate the change with North Carolina and Georgia.

“At least a couple coastal states would need to work in concert,” Peeler said. “It wouldn’t make sense for us to be in a different time zone than everybody else.”

Bottom line: Nobody likes changing their clocks. But this effort requires several neighboring states to work together, a tough ask.

6. Taxing gun purchases to pay for school resource officers

S.C. lawmakers want to put an armed officer in every public school. But Gov. McMaster and other top Republicans who control the Legislature have yet to offer a plan to pay for those school resource officers, aside from taking money from other existing state programs.

It could cost up to $60 million — for the first year — to hire and train the nearly 600 officers needed to staff the schools without a resource officer.

Brawley has suggested paying for them, in part, by imposing a 7-percent additional tax on firearm sales. That could generate an estimated $22 million-a-year solely for SROs, she says.

She cites an April Winthrop Poll that found nearly seven in 10 S.C. residents say they would be willing to pay higher taxes in order to put an SRO in every school.

Bottom line: Brawley’s bill faces long odds in a S.C. House dominated by Republicans who know infringing on gun rights could be fatal in their next primary. The same could be said for another Brawley proposal to ban the sale or possession of assault weapons in South Carolina.

There have been about 900 guns stolen in NC and SC so far this year, a record pace. An ATF official said that guns stolen in the Carolinas often make their way to criminals in the North, where restrictive laws make it harder to get guns. By Adam B

7. Medical marijuana

State Sen. Davis again will push to legalize medical marijuana.

The Beaufort Republican said the bill would help patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple-sclerosis, Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders. Medical marijuana also would be an alternative to opioids for patients with chronic pain, he said.

There is public support for the idea. In a question asked exclusively for The State in 2016, a Winthrop University poll showed nearly four in five S.C. residents supported legalizing medical marijuana.

But S.C. law enforcement officials oppose the idea, saying medical marijuana doesn’t have approval from the Food and Drug Administration and could pave the way for recreational cannabis.

Bottom line: Davis’ bill was approved by House and Senate committees last year but never received a floor vote in either chamber. After years of trying, the Beaufort Republicans says he thinks “this is the year we get over the top.”

8. Ending child marriage

State Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, is re-introducing legislation that would prohibit underage marriages in South Carolina.

The minimum age for marriage in South Carolina is 18, or 16 if a parent consents to the wedding. But a loophole drops that standard if the woman or girl is pregnant. That has allowed pregnant girls as young as 12 to marry older men, according to the Post and Courier of Charleston.

“If you’re below the age of consent, you’re being married to a rapist,” Norrell told The State. “No one should be able to get married before the age of 16.”

Bottom line: There is bipartisan disgust with child marriages. The question is how big a priority this will be in the Legislature next year.

9. Carrying out the death penalty

South Carolina can’t execute death row inmates because pharmaceutical companies aren’t willing to sell the state the drugs necessary for lethal injections without anonymity. And inmates can insist on lethal injection, knowing the state can’t follow through.

To break that deadlock, state Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, will re-file a “shield law” bill that gives drug companies anonymity.

He also is filing a bill to require death-row inmates be executed in the electric chair. “If we’re unable to get the drugs for lethal injection, then this is the alternative,” Tallon said.

Bottom line: The S.C. Department of Corrections is pushing hard for at least one of the proposals to pass. The Senate passed an electric chair bill last year, 26-12, before it stalled in the House. The “shield law” bill did not get a floor vote in either chamber.

10. Equal pay for women

Democratic state Reps. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg and Brawley of Richland will propose guaranteeing S.C. women are paid as well as their male colleagues.

On average, U.S. women in 2017 earned 82 percent of what men made in salary, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Women need to be paid for the work they do because, very often, they are the head of the household,” Brawley said.

Cobb-Hunter said the state must do more to help single mothers.

“Your cost-of-living isn’t cheaper,” she said. “Your groceries aren’t cheaper. Your cost of daycare isn’t cheaper. Your cost of transportation isn’t cheaper.”

Bottom line: Both bills face an uphill climb to passage. Supporters know this but say it is time to start the conversation, expecting it to be a multi-year effort.

40 years ago, Batgirl fought for equal pay for equal work, a fight that persists today. While the wage gap has closed slightly, women still earn 78 percent of what men earn, on average. And for women of color the gap is even wider.

Staff reporters Maayan Schechter and Tom Barton contributed to this report. Reach Wilks at 803-771-8362. Follow him on Twitter @AveryGWilks.
Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.
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