This year’s General Assembly ended with a whimper, and with more differences than agreements between the House and Senate.
Lawmakers still could finish rewriting state ethics laws, adopt government restructuring or agree on who can carry guns where. They are expeced to take up much of that in January, the second year of this General Assembly.
State lawmakers actually will reconvene June 18 to deal with a few lingering issues, including whether they can agree on a bill to restructure part of state government.
“It wasn’t a sexy session by any stretch of the imagination,” said Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island. “It was a workman session.”
Now that it’s largely over, here’s a summary of what was done, based on interviews with several Charleston-area lawmakers:
Roads and bridges
Lawmakers did not raise the state’s gas tax, but they did find $50 million more in the budget to improve the state’s roads and bridges.
State Sen. Larry Grooms, R- Bonneau, ranked it as one of his top priorities, saying, “It will have an immediate impact on bridges and other critical safety and maintenance issues in the state.”
Lawmakers still must hash out exactly how the money will be divvied up between the state’s Department of Transportation and its infrastructure bank, which pays for major infrastructure projects.
Republicans rejected Democrats’ attempts to expand Medicaid eligibility to more than 100,000 low-income residents in the state, an expansion envisioned in the Affordable Health Care Act.
While the GOP majority did not have the votes to turn away federal education dollars as part of the 2009 stimulus, their argument — that the state can’t afford the price tag going forward — prevailed this time.
South Carolinians learned last year that a computer hacker gained access to the state Department of Revenue database, which contains Social Security numbers and bank account information for millions of state taxpayers and businesses.
Lawmakers considered creating a new agency to improve cybersecurity, but could not hammer out the details.
Instead, they set aside about $25 million to upgrade the state’s computer system and fund additional credit services.
The Legislature passed $120 million in new borrowing to help Boeing to expand its Lowcountry plant.
In early April, Boeing announced plans to invest another $1 billion and create 2,000 new jobs over eight years at its 787 campus in North Charleston.
The state’s money will help it buy and improve land near Charleston International Airport.
Lawmakers have had ongoing battles over whether any public education dollars ought to go to students attending private schools.
This year, lawmakers agreed to spend between $5 million and $10 million (the final amount is still to be determined) so parents of special-needs children — and possibly poor children, though that’s also to be determined — can get tax credits to send their child to private school.
Keeping guns from the mentally ill
On Feb. 4, a mentally ill woman showed up outside Ashley Hall school in downtown Charleston and tried to fire a gun she had bought. It didn’t go off, but she certainly got lawmakers’ attention.
They passed a bill requiring courts and law agencies to send certain mental health records to the federal database, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Gov. Nikki Haley signed it on May 3.
“That was a big one,” said Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston. “That took a lot of doing.”
Restaurant gun bill holstered
While restricting gun sales to the mentally ill, state lawmakers tried to increase the rights for those with concealed-weapons permits. A bill allowing permit holders to carry their guns into restaurants serving alcohol came very close to passing. Lawmakers will resume the debate next year.
Last year, more than 200 candidates seeking state and local office were kicked off the ballot on a technicality. The S.C. Supreme Court ruled that they had to file a paper copy of their statement of economic interests at the same time they filed electronically — even if they already had filed one online.
The Legislature rewrote the election law to ensure that would not happen again, though political parties would not have let their candidates make the same mistake twice.
Department of Administration
One of Haley’s top three priorities — and a priority of her predecessor, Mark Sanford — has been a bill to dissolve the State Budget and Control Board and place most of its functions under a new cabinet agency to be called the Department of Administration.
South Carolina is the only state where state government administration is handled by a five-person board, made up of the governor, treasurer, comptroller general and two lawmakers. While the House and Senate passed a bill creating the department, it is unclear if they can agree on a final version when they reconvene on June 18.
Lights out for solar bill
South Carolina’s mostly sunny skies make it one of the nation’s 10 most-promising states for solar power, but tapping that potential has been delayed because companies can’t help property owners finance solar panels.
A bill to change that seemed to be moving ahead, but enough lawmakers bowed to utilities’ concerns about its impact. If utilities convince lawmakers to stall, solar backers will face a new problem — a federal tax credit for solar is good only through 2016.
Good news for fishermen, hunters
It’s not the most dramatic legislative reform, but those who fish should like it.
Lawmakers passed a bill clarifying that fishing and hunting licenses will be good for 365 days from the date of purchase — not simply until July 1. Anyone who buys such a license this month must pay full price, even though it will be good for only a few weeks.
Lawmakers approved two changes to the state’s gambling laws. First, they clarified that sweepstakes machines — which look like illegal video poker machines but pay out differently — are illegal.
They also passed a bill that will go before state voters in November 2014 to decide if charities and nonprofits should be allowed to hold raffles.
South Carolina’s Conservation Bank, which provides money for land conservation, for helping family farms and for protecting historic sites, has had its funding zeroed out in recent years.
This year, an improved state budget picture will allow the bank to receive at least $9 million, a sum that already has helped protect Battery Wilkes, a Civil-War-era fortification off Savannah Highway in West Ashley.
A blow to the head
Rep. Peter McCoy, R-James Island, saw his first bill pass this year, a bill written to improve safety of school-age athletes. It mandates that any student showing a sign of concussion must be taken out of a game, examined and cleared by a trained person before going back in. Haley is expected to decide soon whether she will sign it.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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