COLUMBIA — Attempted fixes to last year’s screw-ups and controversies will dominate much of the new legislative session that begins Tuesday. If you can’t stand to hear anything more about the massive cyberbreach at the state Department of Revenue, the wipeout of more than 200 candidates from elections ballots or about ethics reform, stay far away from the capitol for the next five-plus months.
The question, as always, remains whether state legislators can pass meaningful reforms that will improve the lives of South Carolinians, or whether the heat of debate and disagreement will cause big changes to stall. With an eye toward likely points of dispute, here’s a look at some of the 2013 session’s issues to watch:
The state already has spent $20 million in the aftermath of the huge breach of taxpayer data at the Department of Revenue, the largest known breach of a state agency in U.S. history. That total could be about to climb. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have offered up legislation that would commit the state to extending credit monitoring for consumers beyond one year, and other bills would provide tax credits for consumers affected by the hacking.
State agencies will be looking for more money to shore up their cybersecurity, too. It will all add up. But so far at least, there seems to be emerging bipartisan consensus that the state must do what it takes to protect its residents and prevent future cyberbreaches.
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, a Gaffney Republican, told reporters last week that whatever the cost, the state has to pay it. When state government demands taxpayers’ sensitive information, it must be protected, he said.
Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, is once again trying to overhaul the state’s freedom of information law after his reform bill died in the state Senate last year. Taylor proposes shortening the amount of time public bodies have to respond to requests, and limiting how much the bodies can charge for public records, among other changes.
Last year’s bill failed to pass the Senate after a Columbia Democrat placed a legislative block on it. Sen. John Scott said at the time that he didn’t think the measure had received enough review after passing the House earlier in the session.
Another issue last year was an amendment added to Taylor’s bill by Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, before the measure passed the House. Quinn wanted to end the legal exemption that allows state legislators to keep their emails and other internal correspondence closed to public review. Taylor predicted at the time that senators would balk at the amendment, and that it would kill the bill.
Taylor said he has no problem with lifting the legislative exemption, but said he’s asked Quinn to pursue the change through a separate bill this time around.
Election law reform and early voting
Lawmakers are expected to move quickly to make changes preventing another ballot wipeout like the one that took out 250 candidates before last summer’s primary elections. Booted candidates had failed to properly file required financial disclosure paperwork.
There is some disagreement about how to make sure the mass confusion never happens again. Some legislators want to allow candidates who don’t file properly initially to pay a penalty and stay on the ballot. Others want to overhaul the requirements but keep the current penalties. New House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister said House Republicans aim to overhaul filing and qualifying requirements.
House Democrats want reforms to come with the addition of early voting, which they’ve proposed for years but have been shot down by Republicans. Bannister said his caucus will consider the early voting this year, but said House Republicans generally think people should vote on Election Day. Many South Carolinians vote early through the absentee-voting process, but they must have an excuse. Early voting likely would come with no such requirement.
A pair of legislative panels and another appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley have been holding public meetings for the past two months, taking up ideas for changes to the state’s widely criticized ethics laws.
Among the reforms being weighed are the elimination of legislative ethics committees and requiring state lawmakers to disclose their income and where it comes from. The House and Senate reform committees likely will wait for the Haley-created S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform to make its recommendations before offering up their own.
State Attorney General Alan Wilson also has proposed the creation of a Public Integrity Unit with collaboration from five existing state agencies. Wilson’s office has said the unit could help the State Ethics Commission and legislative ethics committees handle ethics investigations.
GOP Rep. Murrell Smith of Sumter said the unit could be a valuable tool to help restore public faith in the ethics process for the next two years if lawmakers move to eliminate the House and Senate ethics committees. That change likely would require a constitutional amendment, Smith and others have argued, and so the committees would have to remain in place until the amendment would go before voters in late 2014.
Haley’s administration and legislative Republicans argue the state can’t afford the expansion under the Affordable Care Act that would provide health coverage for an estimated 350,000 to 600,000 needy South Carolinians. Democrats generally support the expansion, pointing to the significant amount of federal money that would flow to the state and the benefits of providing health insurance to more residents in an unhealthy state.
“We’ve got to connect the dots and understand the connection between poor, unhealthy citizens and economic development,” said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. “How long do we think companies will continue to locate here as poor health continues?”
Cobb-Hunter said the cost to companies of providing care to unhealthy workers could outweigh the benefits of state-offered economic incentives in the minds of businesses looking at South Carolina.
Hospitals, the medical industry and other outside groups are rallying behind the expansion and will exert considerable resources to pressure legislators to approve the expansion. Expect a major fight on what could be the most contentious issue of the 2013 session.