I NEVER BOTHERED to read Sen. Lee Bright’s bathroom bill. I knew the Senate would never debate it, much less pass it, because of what I call the single-senator veto: Senate rules allow a single senator to prevent so much as a debate on a bill unless at least a majority of senators vote to give it one of the coveted debate slots on the Senate calendar.
On Friday, I read Sen. Larry Grooms’ bathroom bill, because it is a whole different animal, with a whole different set of rules.
Senate blocks Berkeley bathroom ban
Those different rules are throwbacks to legislators’ 19th century tradition of running their home counties from Columbia, and they explain why we are again talking about which bathrooms, locker rooms and showers transgendered students can use, nearly a month after we thought that debate was over.
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There are legitimate questions about whether a federal law passed in 1972 really requires pubescent girls to share a locker room with children who think they are girls but who were born as — and might still have the genitalia of — boys. But that is a matter that ultimately will be settled by the courts.
But whether or not we think our Legislature ought to volunteer to lose $870 million a year in federal funding in the event that the courts agree with the Obama administration’s aggressive interpretation of the law, we all ought to agree that a couple of obscure legislators should not be able to make that decision for the entire state.
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If we could agree on that, then maybe we could make some headway on a matter that has a much greater impact on our schools than how they deal with societal norms about gender and sexuality that are changing at breathtaking speed.
Mr. Grooms’ bill to require students to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender at birth, S.1306, is what’s called a local bill, in this case a bill that applies only to Berkeley County.
Local bills don’t go to committee, so they don’t get the vetting that other bills do; only senators who represent the affected county vote on them. It’s not uncommon for a local bill to be introduced on a Tuesday, given second reading on Wednesday and third reading on Thursday, repeat the process in the other body and land on the governor’s desk the following week.
But this bill is different. North Carolina’s experience with its own bathroom bill freaked out our socially conservative legislators and business leaders and governor so much that after defeating Mr. Bright’s bathroom bill, they rallied again on Thursday to stop Mr. Grooms’ bill.
That’s much more difficult to do. It used to be Senate tradition that kept senators from other counties from voting on local bills. But a few years ago the Senate amended its rules to actually prohibit those outside votes. Because Senate districts cross county lines, senators cast weighted votes that reflect the portion of the county’s population they represent. Mr. Grooms represents more than half the voters in Berkeley County, so he can pass pretty much any local bill he wants. Normally, the other four senators who represent part of the county can’t even slow him down for more than 15 minutes — the maximum time the Senate allows opponents to speak against a local bill.
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Outside senators were able to slow down Mr. Grooms on Thursday by adjourning for the week — thereby relinquishing hours of time they could have debated bills that desperately need debate as the legislative session winds down. They will be hard-pressed to do the same on Tuesday.
Ultimately, the bill is unlikely to become law, because even if the House passes it — and it’s not clear that Berkeley County House members are interested in it — Gov. Nikki Haley is likely to veto it. And when a vetoed local bill returns to the Legislature, the rules change. In 2011 the Supreme Court ruled that a veto is a veto, and it takes two-thirds of the membership of each body — not just two-thirds of those voting — to override. So now the entire Senate and House routinely vote with the local legislators to override the veto. But they don’t have to.
The Legislature occasionally finds a single-county bill so intolerable that it lets it die. And from this occasional exercise of representative democracy I have developed a fantasy — that one day, one bill will be so awful that lawmakers will come to their senses. They will not just kill that one bill; they will end the whole, antiquated practice.
Most single-county laws are unconstitutional, although that doesn’t stop legislators from passing them. Single-county school laws are worse than unconstitutional. They are holding our state back. They are perpetuating the problems that have prevented our Legislature from providing a decent education to all children in our state.
Single-county school laws buttress our practice of writing different rules for different districts. They allow legislators to fixate on the minutia of their local school districts and craft discrete, expedient solutions for their problems rather than focusing on ways to improve all of our schools. In so doing, they discourage the Legislature from making the reforms we need to improve public education for all children. And that does more damage than any bathroom policy — from the left or the right — ever will.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.