COLUMBIA - South Carolina's legislative session this year was rife with controversy and a lack of progress on key issues, likely contributing to voters' general disapproval of the Legislature as a whole, according to experts and a new Palmetto Politics poll.
The poll, commissioned by The Post and Courier and three television stations, showed that 45 percent of 1,000 likely voters surveyed disapproved of the job the state Legislature has done. On the other hand, 22 percent approved of the Legislature's performance and 33 percent were undecided. At the same time, the voters polled were split on the direction South Carolina is heading. While 44 percent believe the state is heading in the right direction, 41 percent say it is on the wrong track and 14 percent were undecided. The poll has a margin of error of about 4 percent.
Despite the numbers, experts say that just as with the low approval ratings for Congress, few feel strongly enough to make a change of their own representative. Members of the House of Representatives are up for election this November.
The July poll comes on the heels of an acrimonious legislative session, which ran from January until June. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, publicly traded barbs in his fight with Attorney General Alan Wilson, who is pursuing an ethics-related investigation into the speaker.
High-profile efforts to create a comprehensive research university housed at the College of Charleston failed, as did an effort to overhaul the law governing legislators' ethics. A more than month-long push by Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, to undo key parts of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, also fell by the wayside.
The session also ended on a particularly bitter note, said Kendra Stewart, a politics professor at the College of Charleston. Some felt longtime Senate leader John Courson, R-Columbia, was pushed out of a key leadership position, president pro tempore, over his stance on the College of Charleston issue. Former Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell was accused of having a hand in the matter, and the issue consumed the Senate at the end of the session.
"What we saw was a lot of party in-fighting at the end of the year, which leaves voters with a bitter taste in their mouth," Stewart said. "The Legislature really did end its session with a lot of political bashing and negative press."
The Legislature's approval rating also reflects the general distrust voters have of political institutions, said pollster Jim Lee, president of Pennsylvania-based Susquehanna Polling and Research, which conducted the survey.
Fifty-two percent of Democrats polled disapproved of the Republican-controlled Legislature, compared to 36 percent of Republicans. Relatively few Republicans - 27 percent of those polled - approve of the Legislature.
The legislative session had a few successes, mostly in funding for education. Gov. Nikki Haley asked for and received additional dollars in the state budget for rural poverty-stricken schools, a third grade "Read to Succeed" initiative passed and additional funding for 4-year-old kindergarten also gained support. The Legislature also banned texting while driving and passed a government restructuring effort.
Despite some successes, the average voter and likely casual follower of the Legislature would mostly interpret chaos, Stewart said. "Nothing came out of them except for ugly politics," she said.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.