Cindi Ross Scoppe

Why popular bills die, or get gutted: a mystery — by design

SC Sen Gerald Malloy is frequently willing to be the front man for efforts to kill smart reforms, allowing other senators to hide their opposition.
SC Sen Gerald Malloy is frequently willing to be the front man for efforts to kill smart reforms, allowing other senators to hide their opposition. tdominick@thestate.com

FIRST STORY: After six years of debate, the Legislature passed a bill last month to make moped drivers obey traffic laws. The vote was 68-31 in the House and 41-1 in the Senate.

So when Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed the bill, objecting (in the same way she objects to mandatory seat-belt laws) that it was wrong to make all drivers wear reflective vests and to make those younger than 21 wear helmets, you would have thought the only question was whether the House would be able to maintain the two-thirds margin to override her veto.

Moped bill dies in SC Senate

In fact, the House overturned the veto with three votes to spare. The problem was the Senate, where Gerald Malloy — who had been among the 41 who voted to pass the bill less than two weeks earlier — suddenly decided it was a bad idea, and made it clear during the Legislature’s June 15 veto session that he was going to filibuster if necessary to keep the Senate from voting to override the veto.

After the Senate passed the ethics bills, most Democrats and more than a few Republicans started slipping out of the chamber, and about 10 hours after the day began, the Senate adjourned for the year without a quorum, leaving the moped veto intact.

Did those missing senators intend to kill the bill, or did they simply figure there would never be a vote, so there was no use sticking around as the clock ticked toward midnight? There’s no way to say for sure.

Second story: After the Senate passed a bill to make it more difficult for police to ignore the law that requires them to release dash-cam video, the House voted late last month to strike that language from the bill and replace it with language from a House-passed bill to make it more difficult for local governments to ignore the laws that require them to release public information.

The architects of this switch explained that they wanted to negotiate a deal to pass both provisions, bypassing a senator who had refused to allow debate on the House bill. House members seemed to agree that this was a good plan.

SC police dash cam, FOIA bill dies in stalemate

Of course the Senate was in no mood to make a deal — at least in part because representatives had the temerity to call out the senator who was blocking consideration of the House bill — and the House refused to back off and pass the dash-cam bill. Clearly, it was the House that was responsible for killing that bill, for a change. But why? Did representatives oppose it, or were they simply tired of giving in to the Senate’s demands, and does it matter?

It’s been a quarter century since then-Rep. Jack Gregory famously defended his vote against a bill he had introduced by telling fellow members of the House Judiciary Committee, “Just because you sponsor a bill doesn’t mean you support it,” but that sentiment is still alive and well at the State House, right along with its corollary: Just because you vote for a bill doesn’t mean you support it. And certainly the fact that you say you are for a bill doesn’t mean you’re for it.

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These stories from the last day of this year’s legislative session are but the tip of the iceberg of the gamesmanship that — five years after Gov. Nikki Haley browbeat the Legislature into passing a law requiring what she calls “on-the-record voting” on all bills — makes it impossible in most cases to say who killed bills, or gutted them before allowing them to pass.

So when people ask who’s to blame for the fact that the new disclosure law doesn’t require legislators to tell us how much income they receive from lobbyists and businesses and organizations that hire lobbyists, all I can say for sure is that Sen. Malloy was the front man for reform opponents. Ditto when people ask who’s to blame for the fact that the so-called “reform” of the state Transportation Commission allows small groups of legislators to torpedo the governor’s appointments to the commission, without even taking a vote.

But Sen. Malloy can’t usually dictate the terms of legislation unless he has the support of a lot of other senators — senators who don’t have to out themselves as long as he’s willing to take the heat.

There’s no way to make legislators vote against bills they oppose, and I don’t know of any way to make people admit that they worked behind the scenes to water down bills. Negotiation, after all, is and should be central to the law-writing process, and the real negotiations are never going to take place in public.

But if the Senate made it easier to get bills up for a vote — by eliminating the single-senator blockade, for example, or reducing the amount of time that can be spent on any bill without an affirmative vote to extend the debate time — that would reduce the opportunities for legislators to secretly sabotage legislation.

And that would reduce the number of good bills that die or suffer grave injuries for reasons we cannot document.

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

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