THE HOUSE and Senate worked well into the afternoon on Thursday to try to outlast stalling maneuvers aimed at killing bills opposed by a minority of lawmakers. The waiting didn’t work — both bodies finally went home for the week without advancing the bills under debate — and if you care about the top items on lawmakers’ 2015 to-do list, the news was worse: They weren’t hanging around to work on ethics reform, or roads, or domestic violence, and certainly not a response to the state Supreme Court’s order to start providing a decent education to all S.C. children.
In the House, they were debating a bill to prohibit state judges from making any rulings based on Sharia law — which, as far as anyone can tell, no state judge has ever done. Or been tempted to do. Maybe not even been asked to do, though that’s a little trickier to pin down. Which sort of makes you wonder why anyone was bothering to try to pass the bill — or kill it.
Across the hall, senators were debating a bill that might prevent two dozen abortions a year — if that many. The Post and Courier quoted a Charleston preacher as saying that “many of us in the pro-life movement” are “scratching our heads,” wondering why anyone was trying to pass the 20-week-abortion bill that “addresses what — maybe zero to some anomaly?” One might likewise wonder why anyone was trying to kill it.
Given the topics that were consuming our legislators’ attention, you could be forgiven for not realizing there are only nine legislative days remaining before the 2015 General Assembly must by law adjourn.
The Lazarus chamber
Of course, the second floor of the S.C. State House is never-say-never land, where bills left for dead can suddenly wind up on the governor’s desk. This is particularly true in the Senate, which has the most work left to do and where a single senator can derail practically everything — but also where, as President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman reminded me on Thursday, “some people say the Senate can raise the dead by unanimous consent.”
I’m not aware of that having actually happened, though I’ve heard credible tales of the Senate altering the space-time continuum by turning back the giant clock at the front of the chamber in order to pretend it was not yet 5 p.m. on the first Thursday in June, the time at which state law demands the Legislature adjourn for the year. And this past week, the foundations were being laid that could allow for some minor miracles.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin told me just before the abortion filibuster fired up Thursday that House leaders had agreed to debate his domestic violence bill, which has been sitting in a House committee ever since he led a torturous debate over it in the Senate back in February. And sure enough, right before giving up for the week on getting Sharia law outlawed, the House recalled his bill from committee and put it in place to be debated, and likely passed, on Wednesday. That’ll send it to a conference committee where, we can hope, the House will accept the Senate provisions to make temporarily giving up guns part of the sentence for convicted batterers and the Senate will accept the House’s plan to add an anti-domestic-violence component to public school health classes.
Two days earlier, Sen. Martin’s committee even approved a handful of mini-ethics bills that the House had passed after passing a mega-ethics bill that the Senate is determined to not pass, or even debate any more. Sen. Martin expressed hope that the Senate might pass the bill requiring legislators and other elected officials to tell us who signs their paychecks. Not how much they make, just who pays them.
A few years ago, that would have been a huge, huge deal. And you know, if we could get income disclosure this year, it still would be a big step forward. It wouldn’t be worth celebrating; it wouldn’t be a job done. Not after Bobby Harrell. And Robert Ford. And Carl Anderson. But still a step forward. Of course, at this point, we’ll only get that if every single member of the Senate agrees to raise the dead issue.
Back in the House, representatives got a bit testy at times but still manged to pass the Senate version of this session’s surprise “it” bill. S.47 would require police to wear body-cameras, which should protect police from trumped-up charges of abuse and protect the public from abusive police — or at least provide evidence in those instances (see: Scott, Walter, North Charleston) when police cross the line and become criminals. The House wants to delay the mandate, and make the video off-limits to the public, but senators will get a crack at negotiating a better deal, and we’ll probably get one of the nation’s first body-camera laws within the next few weeks.
The miracle of the roads?
Education is another matter altogether. Senate Education Chairman John Courson, who like House leaders is working on a study of how the state should respond to Supreme Court’s school-adequacy order, handed me a chart Thursday showing the number of school districts in each Southeastern state. We’re not that far out of line, he said. He had to go back into the chamber to cast a vote before I had a chance to ask whether this meant he opposed the one concrete suggestion the court made in its order — that the Legislature needed to consolidate more school districts. Nor did I have the chance to ask if our state was going to jump off a cliff if all the other Southeastern states jumped off a cliff. And really, there’s no hurry to ask those questions, since legislators never had any intention of responding to the the long-awaited order until next year. We hope.
The business community’s top priority might not be in as bad a shape as the Supreme Court’s top priority, but getting anywhere on repairing our roads remains iffy at best, which is the last thing you’d expect after the House — the never-saw-a-tax-hike-members-could-support-or-tax-cut-they-could-reject S.C. House — voted by a jaw-dropping 87-20 to raise taxes by nearly $400 million a year to pay for road repairs and improvements.
Sen. Leatherman says it’s too early to give up — on roads, or the bond bill he is convinced the House desperately wants the Senate to pass. And indeed there’s an obvious compromise between the two Senate roads plans: Take the $700 million tax hike nearly everybody supports, drop the $700 million tax cut that the Democrats and Sen. Leatherman oppose and keep the reforms of the Transportation Department that most Democrats and Sen. Leatherman oppose, and then go to conference with the House. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find any actual senators who like that combination.
And even if that plan had the support of two-thirds of them (the number necessary to overcome the governor’s my-way-or-no-highway veto), the Senate can’t get to the roads bill until it gets past Sen. Lee Bright’s filibuster of the abortion bill that he says has too many exemptions. Which likely will be followed by his filibuster of the bond bill. And then his filibuster of the roads bill.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.