COLUMBIA - As the General Assembly winds down its legislative session and the clock ticks to pass a bill that would establish the Lowcountry's first comprehensive research university, one S.C. senator suggested a move to see its passage that could throw the Senate into chaos and pit Republicans against each other.
A bill that would establish an expanded University of Charleston would score a significant victory for Lowcountry lawmakers who say such a school would drive significant private donations and offer needed post-graduate programs catering to the state's business community.
Passed by the S.C. House, the bill has been blocked by two powerful lawmakers in the Senate. Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, called the move last week by Sen. John Courson, the president pro tempore, and Sen. Harvey Peeler, the Republican majority leader, a "legislative declaration of war" and promised to use everything in the arsenal to see the bill's passage.
A vote on the University of Charleston measure is expected Wednesday. While the original bill is in purgatory, the S.C. House tacked the measure onto another higher-education related matter that was passed by the House last week.
Entering into the procedural shell game is the timing of the resignation of Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, the incoming president of the College of Charleston. McConnell said Monday that he would resign Thursday. But if the bill is not passed, Grooms suggested that the exact timing of McConnell's resignation could come into play.
If McConnell resigns while the Senate is in session Thursday, Courson could be forced to assume the lieutenant governor's position because any official act by the leader of the Senate would make him lieutenant governor, senators said.
"Any pressure on those opposing the bill is a good thing to make sure the bill passes," Grooms said. He said, however, that he would not be the one to force Courson to take the position if McConnell resigned during the session.
McConnell could not immediately be reached Tuesday.
Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would ask McConnell to postdate his resignation to June 19, the last day the General Assembly is expected to deal with any lingering matters. That way, he said, no official acts would be needed from the lieutenant governor and Courson could avoid taking the post.
Martin said he hopes Courson is not forced to "give up his career" by resigning his Senate seat for a position that ends in January and for which he cannot run for because it is too late to declare his candidacy. He said he was disappointed that politics around the U of C bill seemed to be driving the issue.
"I'd rather wind up this session with a good feeling," Martin said. "We don't need to end it with the Senate, and in particular the Republican caucus, fractured all over itself."
Courson suggested an opening on the U of C-related bill. If the Senate passes the main measure, a bill that would allow Clemson University and perhaps other schools regulatory relief, with the U of C measure tacked onto it with some changes, it would go to a House-Senate conference committee charged with hashing out the differences.
"It may have a chance of passing," Courson said. Differences could be hashed out by the joint committee, which would further vet the University of Charleston bill, he said.
"If it did pass you would have a conference committee vetting . for two weeks," Courson said. He said he has never been opposed to the concept of the bill but wanted to make sure all of its implications were clear.
Peeler declined to say whether he would endorse the Clemson and U of C measures. "Hopefully it will go to a conference committee and we'll hash out the differences," he said, declining to explain further.
Regardless, Courson said he disagrees that he would automatically need to take the lieutenant governor's position, for which he says he does not want to give up his Senate seat and powerful president pro tempore position.
"We cannot be forced to take any public position," Courson said. "I'm not going."
Martin said that the dispute about whether Courson had take the post could end up being decided by the state Supreme Court if someone wanted to file a legal challenge. He said he hopes that no one goes that far.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.