The Buzz

Roads plan crumbling in SC Senate

Deteriorating spots on I-77 in Lexington county.
Deteriorating spots on I-77 in Lexington county. tdominick@thestate.com

Republican state senators refused Thursday to guarantee a proposal to repair the state’s crumbling roads will be debated this year.

The move sets the stage for the session to run out without any action on the Legislature’s No. 1 issue.

“This is an indictment on this entire Senate and on this legislative process that we don’t take this problem seriously,” state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, scolded afterward.

Senators voted 26 for and 19 against making the road-repair proposal a priority, falling short of the 30 votes necessary. The proposal would raise roughly $800 million a year to repair the state’s crumbling roads and bridges by increasing the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon and also hiking other road-related fees.

Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, urged senators to set the bill on special order, a moved that guaranteed it would be debated but not ensuring a vote.

Nineteen Republicans refused to set the bill for debate.

One opponent, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, insisted there still will be a chance to debate the road-repair bill after the Senate debates the state’s proposed budget next week.

Martin said he opposed ensuring debate of the roads bill because some senators, including those in the majority party GOP Senate Caucus, are working to refine the proposal that came out of the Senate Finance Committee.

The Finance Committee voted 15-8 Tuesday to scrap a House roads proposal, which would raise roughly $427 million a year for repairs, in favor of a Senate roads plan, which would raise roughly $800 million a year.

Critics complained the Finance Committee plan only raises taxes and does not — like the House plan — include state Transportation Department reforms or a tax cut.

Meanwhile, senators were criticized by members of the GOP-dominated House — Democrats and Republicans alike — for not taking more action on top issues.

“I don’t know what they’ve done, if anything,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland.

State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, echoed those sentiments. “We’re on the fast track, and they’re on the slow track.”

Early in the day Thursday, roughly twice as many House bills sat in Senate committees awaiting action as Senate bills were before House committees. Bills that did not cross over to the other chamber by Thursday would require a two-thirds vote to be taken up, making it unlikely they will be taken up before January — if at all.

House Republicans are upset because they think they stuck their necks out to pass their roads proposal 87-20, a wide-enough margin to override a promised veto by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, Limehouse said. That roads plan includes a 10-cent-a-gallon gas tax hike, which hurts most conservatives to support politically, he said.

The House is expected to pass more legislation than the deliberative Senate – where a single senator has the ability to block legislation. That ability gives minority party Senate Democrats and GOP factions, including the conservative William Wallace Caucus of libertarian-leaning Republicans, the ability to influence or kill legislation.

In the overwhelmingly GOP House, Republicans more easily can push through their agenda.

New House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said Thursday that if top issues — including roads, ethics reform and domestic violence — are not addressed this year, the first in a two-year session, they will be dealt with next year. But they will collide then with legislative debate of education reforms ordered by the S.C. Supreme Court.

Senators say House complaints they are slow-walking legislation are unfair.

The House drew fire earlier in the session from Senate Judiciary chairman Martin for not taking up his domestic violence reform bill, which has sat in a House Judiciary Committee since early March.

“It takes two bodies to get bills enacted into law and … neither side has a good track record of taking up the other body’s bills,” Martin said, adding there must be dramatic improvement.

Lucas said Thursday the House is willing to use the Senate bill to toughen the state’s domestic violence laws, adding it is unacceptable to not deal with the issue this year.

For all the hand-wringing over the Legislature’s failure to act on key issues thus far this session, a case can be made that legislators rarely act until they are facing a deadline.

The majority of legislation, for example, is passed after the annual May 1 crossover deadline. In 2013, the first year of the last two-year session, for instance, only about two dozen bills had been ratified by May 1. Nearly 100 more were passed after the crossover date.

“Maybe we drag out the crossover business too much and focus too much on our own bills as opposed to the good bills that we need to go ahead and spend time on policy-wise to get moved into law,” Martin said.

Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.

May 1 crossover deadline

Friday is the deadline for bills to pass either the House or Senate and stand a good chance of passing this year. After the May 1 crossover deadline, it requires a two-thirds vote by the opposite chamber to take up a proposal. Bills that do not make the crossover deadline do not die completely because this is the first year of a two-year session. But the chances of those bills passing this year are slim.

Bills that made the deadline

Abortion: A ban on abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy passed the House earlier this year. A Senate committee also has OK'd the proposal, sending it to the full Senate.

Domestic violence: A Senate bill, which would classify offenses into degrees and prohibit abusers from owning guns for up to 10 years, has been sitting in the House Judiciary Committee since March. Speaker Jay Lucas said Thursday the House will be willing to use the Senate bill as the vehicle to reform the state’s domestic violence laws.

Ethics: Ethics reform has passed the House but is tied up — again — in the Senate. Senators do not want to stop having lawmakers investigate themselves, saying the Senate Ethics Committee works just fine. Senators also say the public doesn’t care about the issue – even after half-dozen scandals involving governors, lieutenant governors, and House and Senate members.

Roads: The House has passed a road-repair bill, but the Senate Finance Committee prefers its own roads plan. However, senators rejected a proposal Thursday to guarantee that plan would be debated, leaving the issue in limbo.

Bills that must wait until next year

Medical marijuana: State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, has introduced a bill to make legal the medical use of marijuana, including for glaucoma and cancer. That bill likely will be debated next year.

Including sexual orientation in anti-discrimination law: A proposal by House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. The GOP-controlled House voted Thursday to vote on the proposal next week. The proposal likely won’t be debated in the Senate until next year. Still, Rutherford said the House action is a “historically significant step,” adding it said “once and for all that discrimination is wrong and will not be tolerated in the state of South Carolina.”

$10.10 minimum wage: A proposal by Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, would increase the minimum wage to at least $10.10 an hour, but it is buried in committee. Since it is a Democratic idea, it’s unlikely the GOP-controlled House will bite. The proposal may never see the Senate.

S.C. Jobs, Education and Tax Act: Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Dorchester, unveiled a plan early in the session to streamline education funding and distribute money to S.C. schools based on their student population. Her plan would raise roughly $1 billion for schools by removing sales tax exemptions. About $600 million would go to property tax relief, leaving less than $400 million in new money for schools. The plan, or a similar one, could be debated next year when a House panel, formed to address a Supreme Court ruling, will submit its findings.

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