COLUMBIA -Sen. John Courson, the president pro tempore or leader of the Senate, resigned his position Wednesday from the Senate floor, saying he does not want to give up his longtime seat to become lieutenant governor.
"This resignation has nothing to do with y'all," Courson said. He said he made a campaign promise not to move up to the post if it became open.
He called on Gov. Nikki Haley to ask Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, the incoming president of the College of Charleston, to serve out the remainder of his term. Haley had criticized Courson previously for refusing to take the post.
McConnell had said he would resign Thursday in order to transition to his new job at C of C and to stay out of the way of a measure that could affect the college. He said in an interview with The Post and Courier Wednesday that given the day's events, he would wait to resign until a new president pro tempore could be selected.
McConnell said that although the state has left the post vacant in the past, modern times demanded that someone act as lieutenant governor. He called on senators to pick a new president pro tempore before the end of the legislative session. The official session ends Thursday but lawmakers are expected to come back to Columbia the week of June 17 to finish any lingering matters.
"I'm not going to let the state end up in a stalemate and a constitutional crisis," McConnell said. "I would prefer to leave tomorrow. But if that's not possible then it's not possible."
Senators had said that Courson could be forced to become lieutenant governor, effectively ending his career and forcing him to take a mostly powerless post at the height of his career. Though he resigned his leadership post, Courson maintains his seat in the Senate.
Courson said he was forced to step down as president pro tempore. McConnell said that the Constitution is clear about what is required of Courson.
"The president pro tempore by its name means temporary. The president pro tempore's duties in regards to the line of succession are to act in the temporary absence of the lieutenant governor," McConnell said. "It would be my hope that somebody who wants to be president pro tem who will perform those duties."
The Senate did not elect a new leader Wednesday. Courson said he did not know if anyone would take the job.
Lawmakers have said that politics around a bill that would establish the Lowcountry's first comprehensive research university have played a role in the lieutenant governor situation. Courson openly blocked the bill, a key priority for McConnell and other Charleston-area legislators.
Courson said "red flags" went off when the bill was pushed through to the Senate's floor without going through his education committee.
The primary role of the lieutenant governor is to fill in for the governor should it become necessary. Without a lieutenant governor or president pro tempore, that duty would fall to House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.
Senators said they do not plan to replace Courson immediately and he could be re-nominated for the post next year when the General Assembly reconvenes. Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said it's not necessary or fair to have someone step into the lieutenant governor's role with just a few months left in the seat's term.
"There's a big difference when you ask someone to assume that position now," said Martin, adding that this would likely not be an issue had it taken place earlier in the year. "We don't have anybody who just wants to walk out the door."
Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, who also played a role in blocking the University of Charleston bill, lamented the turn of events.
"Why have you been forced to resign?" Peeler asked. "I look forward at the proper time to nominate you, whenever you're ready, as president pro tempore in the Senate."
Courson noted that the state has gone without a lieutenant governor six times in its history. By resigning, Courson said his intent was to create an incentive for McConnell to serve out the remainder of his term.
"The ball should be in his court," Courson said. "He is the lieutenant governor. He should serve his term out as lieutenant governor through January."
Other than the dramatic turn of events, lawmakers said that the absence of a lieutenant governor would have little practical effect on the remainder of the legislative session.
Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, said the turn of events was problematic. "I'm worried about the message this sends to the public," he said. "This is not how public office should be conducted, how government should be conducted."
Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia, said Courson's resignation from the position came as a surprise, but that the Senate is up for the challenge.
"I think that politics have gotten involved in this," Setzler said. "But the South Carolina Senate will step up to the plate. We will continue to do our jobs."