The Legislature passed 136 laws this year — 87 of them during the final week of the regular legislative session and the two days lawmakers returned to Columbia last month to wrap up loose ends.
There’s nothing out-of-the-ordinary about that ratio: Lawmaking is a process of negotiation, and negotiators hold out as long as they can to get the best deal they can. Additionally, a lot of lawmakers are procrastinators.
But with all of the attention focused on the SCE&G rate-cut bill, and the abortion debates, and all the other stuff in the state budget, we glossed right over a lot of the second-tier bills that made it through.
Some are good, smart changes to state law.
Some are not.
Here are eight you ought to know about:
▪ S.131 repealed the 1919 law that had gotten twisted from its original intent of protecting students from intruders into a law that made it a crime for students to act “in an obnoxious manner.” Critics said the old disturbing-schools law was used disproportionately to arrest black students, so it got caught up in a lot of racial politics.
Finally, lawmakers managed to look past that and just ask themselves: Do we really want a law that literally allows students to be jailed, rather than simply expelled, for talking back to the teacher? The replacement law says students can’t be charged under the disturbing-schools statute unless they’re suspended or expelled at the same time. The bill also creates a new crime just for students, who could be charged for threatening bodily injury or death to anyone, through any means of communication.
▪ Probably the second-dumbest law we discovered in the past year (No. 1, of course, was the Base Load Review Act) was the one that says you don’t have to pass a vision test in order to get a driver’s license. Last year, Department of Motor Vehicles Director Kevin Shwedo convinced a handful of legislators that the test didn’t serve any useful purpose, so they added the easy-to-overlook repeal to a larger driver’s license bill.
This year, DMV’s argument that it was so overwhelmed rolling out Real ID licenses that it couldn’t possibly accommodate vision tests was enough to maintain the status quo, but only temporarily. The Legislature passed H.4672 to reinstate the test, effective Oct. 1, 2020. That’s a huge, if unnecessarily delayed, win for public safety. And common sense.
▪ The Legislature finally enacted the law to make the lieutenant governor a gubernatorial appointee and eliminate the stand-alone office of lieutenant governor. A good thing. And despite the best efforts of the House, the legislation didn’t include those pay raises for judges and other statewide officers. Another good thing.
But S.107 also transformed the Office on Aging, which bizarrely lived inside the lieutenant governor’s office, into a separate Department on Aging. Instead of tucking it neatly inside an already existing state agency. Meaning the number of separate agencies would remain unchanged, at 5,493 (slight exaggeration). Oh, wait: Make that 5,494, since S.805 created the whole new Department of Children’s Advocacy.
▪ Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed a bill to increase the number of people who could have their criminal records expunged; like me, he objected to rewriting history. The S.C. Chamber of Commerce insisted that H.3209 was needed to allow its members to hire people who had served their time, so of course the Legislature overrode the veto. Even though the only thing stopping a business from hiring such people was its own decision not to do so.
▪ The governor also vetoed H.4973, which allows newer legislators to purchase retired-legislator license tags after they leave office, as longtime lawmakers long have done. If that were all it did, I would agree with Mr. McMaster that it was a waste of lawmakers’ time.
But it also prohibits people from purchasing retired-legislator tags if they’ve been convicted of a crime involving dishonesty or moral turpitude or punishable by imprisonment of a year or more. That would mean, among others, Bobby Harrell, Jim Merrill, Rick Quinn and John Courson. That probably made the bill more worthwhile than not, which might or might not be why lawmakers overrode the veto. But they did.
▪ Rather than raising teachers’ pay or letting schools give performance bonuses or working to increase respect for teachers, some lawmakers wanted to revive the TERI program, which contributed to the financial problems in the State Retirement System by letting teachers and other state employees essentially give themselves pay raises — whether their bosses thought they were worth it or not — for the last few years they work. Fortunately, lawmakers refused to do this.
Unfortunately, they agreed to a related one-year plan in the budget to let retired police officers draw their full retirement pay and their salary if they go to work as school safety officers.
▪ Two years ago, the Legislature voted to take away the extraordinary power given to unregulated pipeline companies to force property owners to sell their land, but only until June 30, 2019. S.1101 extended that for a year, while lawmakers study whether unregulated utilities should have any of the eminent domain powers that regulated utilities have.
▪ Finally, one I never wrote about: S.302 allows students in marching band to skip physical education class as long as the band complies with the state’s physical education and performing arts standards. I don’t know if it’s a good change or a bad change, but it was changed.
Want to know more? Here are columns I wrote about these topics before the Legislature acted:
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.