Will SC legalize marijuana? Here are the top issues facing SC in the New Year

The debate over legalized medical marijuana in South Carolina

The proposed bill to allow for medical marijuana has passed from a SC house subcommittee.
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The proposed bill to allow for medical marijuana has passed from a SC house subcommittee.

As 2018 draws to a close, The State’s reporters dug into their notebooks and talked to state lawmakers and Midlands leaders to determine the biggest issues in the New Year.

This will be a year of big changes, they all agreed. From a $1 billion cash surplus for state government to new dining and residential developments to a new USC president, the Midlands landscape will change in 2019. Here’s what’s on tap.

New year, new Columbia digs

Expect the Capital City to grow by more the 400 apartments, 250 hotel rooms, and 155,000 square feet.

Those are the rough specs for what Columbia could get in 2019 if private developers move forward with about $200 million in plans to transform two major downtown corners and part of the BullStreet complex.

Developers are eyeing the corners of Huger and Gervais for a hotel-office-retail space and Huger and Blossom for an apartment complex. And more: Though likely set back by a recent fire, the historic Babcock Building at BullStreet is under consideration for luxury apartments.

In Five Points, the popular college entertainment district, cultural tides continue to shift.

The war on late-night college frivolity (debauchery?) continues with challenges to liquor licenses and crackdowns on closing times.

Meanwhile, family-friendly Hometeam BBQ is slated to open in the spring, and Publico, a chic taco shop, is expanding its entertaining space. Plans also are shaping up for new apartments in the old Inn at Claussen’s Bakery and a possible hotel (and much-needed parking) on Devine Street.

How to spend $1 billion

State lawmakers have about $1 billion in extra cash to spend in 2019, money above and beyond what they spent last year thanks to growth in the state’s tax revenue, surplus money and lottery earnings.

What could eat up the cash?

Teachers are demanding pay raises (and, hint to S.C. lawmakers: they want more than enough to barely cover inflation and say they deserve it — their jobs are really hard). The state’s pension system is severely underfunded. And state-owned buildings are in need of maintenance after years of the state putting it off.

Expect a fight in 2019 as lawmakers square off on how to spend the money —part of a never-ceasing debate over which of the state’s priorities are most important, such as roads, public safety, schools or public colleges and universities.

The latter are always under pressure to rein in tuition from lawmakers who have slashed their state support over the years. In 2019, the debate over higher-education funding will lose a leading voice when University of South Carolina president Harris Pastides steps down July 31, ending a 10-year career at the school.

During his tenure, Pastides increased enrollment by 25 percent, launched an online degree program, raised more than $1 billion for the university and watched the women’s USC basketball team become the 2017 national champions. Whoever succeeds Pastides will face pressure to rein in tuition while building a $460 million dormitory complex and a $200 million medical school.

USC hopes to announce its new president, or at least an interim, before Pastides’ exit.

Big battles at the State House

Arguments over money won’t be the only thing happening at the State House. Solar advocates are expected to pressure state lawmakers to raise the cap on rooftop solar projects. The state’s two largest power companies have either hit the cap or are nearing it, threatening to stifle a rapidly expanding clean-energy option for power customers.

Lawmakers are expected to push legislation blocking offshore drilling in the wake of the Trump Administration issuing permits for testing for oil and gas off South Carolina’s coast. Coastal lawmakers oppose drilling, saying it will hurt the Lowcountry’s fragile environment and threaten the state’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry.

Advocates of legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes say 2019 could be the year they succeed. A medical pot proposal made it to the floors of the S.C. House and Senate in 2018, but never came up for a vote. Though most South Carolinians support legalizing the intoxicating plant, according to a Winthrop University poll, the effort faces strong opposition from State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, the state’s top cop.

Also in 2019, lawmakers will decide whether to sell Santee Cooper, the state-owned power company that racked up $4 billion in debt before abandoning a decade-long effort to build two nuclear reactors. A consulting firm hired by the General Assembly will begin fielding offers for Santee Cooper in mid-January and will release their findings in late February for lawmakers’ consideration.

And members of the GOP-controlled Legislature will continue their march toward banning abortion in South Carolina, pushing an outright ban alongside more narrow proposals such as outlawing abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected.

Lexington, Richland challenges

Lexington County is busting at the seams, and 2019 will be a big year for decision makers tasked with dealing with all the new neighbors, including rising requests for building permits, more cars traveling the roads and more children requiring education.

Expect the growing pains to be most pronounced in the school districts. Lexington 1 will launch its $365 million building plan to help with its explosive growth, but Lexington 3 will have to find other ways to accommodate swelling student populations after voters rejected the district’s recent request to raise taxes for schools.

Richland County leaders have some big things to fix in 2019. After the controversial departure of its county administrator, they need to find someone to run the county. After the state Supreme Court found the county misspent money in it’s $1 billion penny sales tax program, they need to right the ship on spending and management.

And after they spent $6 million buying stores at Columbia Place Mall for the now-defunct Richland Renaissance plan, they need to figure out how to use the property they bought. Perhaps a 911 call center would work in the mall?

Meanwhile, the City of Columbia will have its eyes on potential suitors. Packed with entities such as hospitals and government agencies that don’t pay taxes, city leaders are hoping for a chance to offer tax breaks to developers who would build projects that would expand the city’s tax base. The city signed off on three tax breaks at the end of 2018, contingent on whether developers move forward with their plans.

Tom Barton, Isabella Cueto, Lucas Daprile, Sarah Ellis, Sammy Fretwell, Maayan Schechter, Jeff Wilkinson and Avery G. Wilks contributed.

Reach Self at (803)771-8658

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