COLUMBIA — For nearly a year, South Carolina senators have carefully and methodically worked on a bill that would overhaul public education in South Carolina. But time to consider the bill might be running out.
Wednesday marked the 13th day of floor debate on the proposal with senators still considering changes instead of debating the entire bill.
Five weeks into the 18-week session, senators have not discussed any other significant legislation on the Senate floor. Eight days earlier, the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and Manufacturers Alliance asked the Senate to finish meaningful education reform and move on to other things.
Frustration is mounting. Senators delayed the start of Wednesday's session by about an hour for party member meetings. At one point, Senate President Harvey Peeler had to remind two senators to “simmer down” during debate.
Dozens of amendments to the bill remain to be debated as more are filed daily. A vote called by Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey to limit debate late Tuesday night failed 28-12, with a number of Republicans voting against their leader.
“The debate on the amendments is still moving along, so I didn't vote to close debate. And I think the bill still needs a lot of work,” said Republican Sen. Wes Climer of Rock Hill.
Limiting debate would stop lawmakers from filing additional amendments to change the bill. A number of lawmakers said they aren't sure they can support the bill as written, which is the product of more than a dozen meetings last year and debate on the Senate floor. The House passed its own version last March.
The Senate bill has already been altered. Lawmakers added up to $3,300 yearly in scholarships for education majors paid for by lottery money. It doubles the amount of money given to teachers to buy supplies to $550 annually. The bill would also pay fees for certifications for first-time teachers and provide daily breaks without students and other protections.
The bill also allows school districts to set their own start dates. South Carolina has a law requiring school districts not to start before the third Monday of the year and lawmakers from areas especially dependent on tourism, like Horry County and Myrtle Beach don't want school to start earlier.
Senators met in small groups as the debate continued Wednesday looking for some way to get enough of them on board to pass the amendments that could clear the way to pass the proposal. But not everyone was confident middle ground will be found.
“Do you realize the compromise might be fire the school boards and let Horry County set the start date?” said Republican Sen. Shane Martin, a former school board member in Spartanburg County.
In the first five weeks of the 2020 session, the Senate hasn't faced any other pressing issues. But that will change soon. On Tuesday, officials released a report about the potential of selling state-owned utility Santee Cooper. That might be the only issue more complex than overhauling public education.
The Senate is interrupting debate Thursday and won't meet at all Tuesday so its Finance Committee can be briefed and ask questions about the potential sale of the utility. After that, the Senate will get the state budget.
The debate has been dominated by Democratic Sen. Mike Fanning of Great Falls who has cast himself as a protector of teachers. He proposed an amendment Wednesday to give teachers a $3,000 raise that other senators said was out of order because it was a budget matter.
“You know this. I think you are using this to your advantage," said Massey, pointing out teachers were already posting on Twitter that senators don't support the raise.
Fanning has proposed dozens of amendments and hinted he might filibuster the bill unless it is significantly improved.
“I appreciate the real consideration they are getting as they are voted down," Fanning said just after the Senate rejected the sixth amendment he had proposed on Wednesday, No. 114.