Cindi Ross Scoppe

When a bathroom bill is something much, much bigger

SC House members take their oath of office during the December organizational session.
SC House members take their oath of office during the December organizational session. tdominick@thestate.com

TO THE EXTENT that it gets discussed, H.3012 will be characterized as the 2017 bathroom bill. And I have no doubt that freshman Rep. Steven Long’s goal is in fact to keep people out of bathrooms that don’t correspond with their gender at birth.

But viewed in a larger context — how our Legislature treats local governments year in and year out — it is much more mundane. And unacceptable.

Just like last year’s big bathroom bill crossed what should be an inviolable line by attempting to dictate policy for a single school district, H.3012 crosses what should be another inviolable line. It tells the city and county council members who are elected by their communities for the purpose of writing the rules for their communities that they can only do that to the extent that the Legislature likes the way they do it.

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The Home Rule Act that didn’t really allow home rule

If you want something done in South Carolina, there’s only one option: The Legislature

At the intersection of SC legislative dominance, misplaced priorities & election debacles

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It is, then, so very not out of the ordinary. So very like the laws we already have to prohibit city and county councils from regulating chicken farms. And billboards. So very like the laws that already tell city and county councils that they can only levy certain taxes, that they can only raise those taxes by a certain amount, that they can only use that tax money for certain purposes — while other laws simultaneously order them to provide an ever-growing list of services.

(It could be argued that H.3012 merely bars local governments from dictating the use of bathrooms in hotels, restaurants and other “public accommodations” — a term that doesn’t include government. But it also could be argued that the bill covers city, county and school buildings too. And if it doesn’t, and if it gets debated, I’m sure that’ll be clarified. Because 1) school bathrooms are the main point of these laws, and 2) the Legislature would not squander an opportunity to limit how cities and counties can govern the use of their own facilities — bathroom or otherwise.)

H.3012 is the only bathroom bill among the 556 measures prefiled in the lead-up to the 2017 General Assembly. But it is of a piece with Rep. John King’s H. 3156, which requires county councils to “provide office space and appropriations for the operation of the county legislative delegation office including compensation for staff personnel and necessary office supplies and equipment.”

That’s outrageous enough, given those legislative limits on how and by how much county councils can levy taxes, and given that the Legislature religiously shortchanges local governments the money state law says it must provide them to cover state-mandated services. But the bill further requires that the “amount of the appropriations must be determined by the legislative delegation and included in the annual county budget” and stipulates that the “delegation is responsible for the employment, supervision, and discharge of all personnel employed by the delegation.”

That’s so audaciously heavy-handed that it makes H.3165 looks nearly reasonable.

H.3165, sponsored by Greenville Reps. Garry Smith, Mike Burns, Bill Chumley, Dwight Loftis and Tommy Stringer, prohibits any entity appointed by a legislative delegation from transferring any authority “without a prior affirmative act of the General Assembly,” under penalty of a $1,000 fine, removal from office and a lifetime ban on ever holding any public office again. (Too bad legislators don’t think the penalties should be that tough for, say, legislative corruption.)

I’m sure the sponsors have in mind stopping the Greenville Health System from turning itself into a private non-profit, as they have failed to do through the courts. But the bill doesn’t say legislatively appointed boards can’t turn themselves into private entities. It says they can’t transfer power to any entity — like, say, a county council. Not that any entity appointed by a legislative delegation would ever do such a sensible thing.

H. 3227, by Rep. Wendell Gilliard, allows cities and counties to impose impact fees on residential construction — the holy grail of local governments looking to make new residents pay for some of the infrastructure costs they generate. But the money couldn’t be used to offset the cost of new schools or roads or water or sewer plant capacity; it could only be used to combat homelessness. Which makes it of a piece with pretty much every local government taxation bill: It strictly, and ridiculously, limits the use of the money.

But I don’t want you to think that all legislators are either hostile or at best indifferent to local government. There is one pro-local government bill among the 556 prefiles: H.3158, introduced by Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, would let cities easily annex areas of up to 25 acres that are completely surrounded by cities — the so-called doughnut holes, which tend to receive benefits of being part of a city without paying any of the cost, and which drive up costs to the county governments that remain responsible for them.

Of course, getting a workable way to incorporate these enclaves has been a priority of the S.C. Municipal Association for, oh, forever, and bills to do that get introduced every year. So as sensible as it is, it’s unlikely to go anywhere. We can only hope the same is true for the others.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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