COLUMBIA - Two of the General Assembly's most powerful leaders put the brakes on a bill Wednesday that would have established the Charleston region's first comprehensive research university, setting up a widely-watched clash of the Legislature's most powerful members in the session's last days.
Sens. John Courson, R-Columbia, and Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, the Senate pro tempore and Senate majority leader, respectively, placed procedural holds on a bill that would have established a newly-expanded University of Charleston, a comprehensive research university that would offer post-graduate programs tied to the region's business needs. The senators' objections significantly diminish the chances of the initiative to pass this year, senators said.
The open, visible objections to the bill from two of the Senate's most powerful leaders were surprising, said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, who has pushed the measure. "In legislative terms, that's a declaration of war on Charleston," he said.
Both sides of the debate said that bare-knuckle politics have come into play in recent days as the bill has been held up for weeks in the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Courson.
Grooms said he would continue to push the University of Charleston initiative, seeking to attach it to other measures or by other means.
Grooms also provided more details on prospective donations that three donors have said could be made if the bill passes and establishes the newly expanded university. Corporate and business interests have driven the measure and it has been pushed by the Charleston Chamber of Commerce. Those donors, which Grooms said want to remain anonymous, have said that some $27 million in donations, which includes parcels of land, are possible. Donors have expressed interest in establishing programs in computer science, computer engineering and maritime transportation and logistics, Grooms said.
Peeler and Courson both said in interviews that there is no need to rush the bill and that it needs further study, including a fiscal impact analysis.
But they also said that other factors were in play.
"To try to ram this down our throats and pull every trick, every parliamentary maneuver ... concerns me," Peeler said. He was referring, in part, to a vote last week that allowed the S.C. Senate to put the bill on its schedule without a hearing in the Senate Education Committee.
Without being specific, Peeler said: "I don't like threats. They know it won't work. They've overplayed their hand. Trying to do an end run around the president pro tempore and chairman of the education committee (Courson) is unprecedented. I'm very disappointed with that crowd."
He said, however, he knows he is "dealing with a bunch of political prize fighters."
Peeler said a House bill he's interested in has been threatened by lawmakers in favor of the university expansion, but declined to be specific. He said to ask the bill's proponents what threats they had delivered to him.
Grooms declined to say. "This is hardball politics," he said. "As we reach the close of the legislative session sometimes denial works best. If I can't get what I want, then you're not going to get what you want."
Grooms said the issue deserves an up-or-down vote and that the matter is a simple one of whether the University of Charleston should be able to offer expanded post-graduate programs.
The bill has already passed the House. The harder sell has been the Senate, where it's easier for bills to be held up by individual members.
"That's not the reason why (senators) should do it," Grooms said of the possible donations. "It's the right thing for the state and for the region."
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.
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