Politics & Government

On first day of new session, SC senators move to curb governor’s appointment power

Sights and Sounds from the first day of 2018 General Assembly

The 122nd South Carolina General Assembly convened Monday. To the outsider it may seem to be a three-ring-circus.
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The 122nd South Carolina General Assembly convened Monday. To the outsider it may seem to be a three-ring-circus.

On the first day of their new two-year legislative session, S.C. senators Tuesday moved to strip authority from the state’s already weak chief executive.

The Senate Judiciary Committee signed off on a proposal to restrict when the governor can appoint a nominee to a high-level state job without the Senate’s consent. The bill could receive a vote in the full GOP-majority Senate as early as Thursday.

The proposal, which must pass the House, stems from last fall’s legal scuffle between Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and Senate leaders after the governor unilaterally appointed an ally to chair the board of the state-owned Santee Cooper utility.

Ultimately, the state Supreme Court decided state law allowed McMaster to appoint former S.C. Attorney General Charlie Condon as chairman of the troubled utility, even after the Senate declined to confirm him to the job.

Now, senators want to rewrite the law.

Their proposal would let the governor make interim appointments without the Senate’s permission — but only when the General Assembly is out of session, and only if the Senate hasn’t had a chance to accept or reject a nominee.

In cases like Condon — who the Senate had months to confirm or reject but let the session end without an up-or-down vote — the governor’s appointment would be blocked by the Senate’s inaction.

Privately, several senators have said they had concerns that Condon had no major utility experience. They also say his nomination might have been rejected if there had been a Senate vote last year.

“You need to protect the Senate’s constitutional role of advice and consent,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said Tuesday, arguing the proposal would keep future governors from bypassing the Senate to make “repetitive interim appointments.”

However, Massey and state Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, also said the Senate must act faster in the future.

“We should do our jobs,” Malloy said. “We need to ... take it up in an expeditious fashion.”

McMaster’s office declined to comment.

Also on Tuesday, the full Senate promoted one of its longest-serving members to the new post of Senate president.

Veteran state Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, is the first Senate president. He will preside over the Senate — a duty performed by the lieutenant governor until this year.

“My family can share with you story after story after story about events that have happened in my life that would have easily killed a normal man,” Peeler said, after donning the Senate president’s purple robe. “After each event, my mother would whisper to me, ‘God is saving you for something good, son.’ Well, Momma, I think this is it.”

The Senate also recognized its only new member.

After winning a special election last fall to replace former Senate Education Committee chairman John Courson, 69-year-old Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, is the oldest freshman senator in the history of the chamber, according to his own research.

Harpootlian, a sharp-tongued former prosecutor and state Democratic Party chairman, was reserved in his five-minute introductory speech. Harpootlian said he wants to work with senators on two issues that voters told him were important: education and public corruption.

“We can disagree without being disagreeable,” Harpootlian said. “But we must never abandon our efforts to improve the lives of our children, and this state … has clearly failed to do that. ... We should focus on the next generation, not the next election.”

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He is currently filling in as an editor of The State’s award-winning State House team. 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.