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SC House unlikely to return until December, and then only for redistricting

House Majority Leader Gary Simrill

House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, talks to reporters outside The Palmetto Club on Sept. 22, 2021, following a private luncheon meeting of the House GOP Caucus. House lawmakers significantly pared down legislation that would have barred private employers from issuing or enforcing COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Seanna Adcox/Staff

COLUMBIA — The South Carolina House won't return when the Senate does in mid-October, making it impossible for the full Legislature to address or overturn their ban on masks in schools for the foreseeable future.

The House will return in December to approve new, post-census voting lines but it is highly unlikely the chamber will come back to Columbia before then, House Majority Leader Gary Simrill said Sept. 22 following a private House GOP Caucus meeting in Columbia.

That means it will be impossible for legislators to address their controversial ban on school mask mandates despite a growing chorus of educators, doctors and elected officials of both parties calling for a repeal of the one-year law that took effect July 1.

Legislative leaders in both GOP-majority chambers have already said there aren't enough votes to overturn it. 

Even if senators manage to find a compromise that lets school boards set their own mask rules, neither chamber can enact or change state law on its own.

"At this time, the House has no plans to reconvene for a special session," House Speaker Jay Lucas said in a written statement following the caucus meeting.

Last week, Senate President Harvey Peeler announced the Senate will come back Oct. 12, specifically to debate new voting maps and discuss how to spend $3 billion in federal money. He insisted debate will follow the law legislators adopted in May outlining when they could return for any special session for the rest of the year and what it could include. 

The law reflected legislators' intention to return this fall to craft a spending plan for $2.5 billion in federal COVID aid they control, as well as $525 million from a settlement with the Department of Energy over plutonium at the Savannah River Site.

The plans also called for passing new maps for legislative and U.S. House seats to align with population shifts.

But limiting discussion and podium speeches by senators could still prove futile.

"We will watch what the Senate does," Simrill said after the caucus luncheon.   

Asked if he envisioned any scenario that would bring the House back before December, he said, "No, I do not."

For starters, he said, the House is nowhere close to being able to debate new voting maps. The panel handling House lines is still holding hearings around the state to take public testimony on what changes voters do or don't want to see.

As for spending the federal money, House leaders want to hold off on making decisions amid a third surge of COVID-19. 

"For us, time and patience are important because we don’t know the ramifications of COVID," Simrill said. "Until we have a grasp of what is happening on that front, it’s difficult to react."

For example, Gov. Henry McMaster's recommendation to spend $360 million to widen Interstate 26 between Columbia and Charleston seemed an obvious "top-tier" use of the money. But other needs may take priority, he said.

There's no need to make those spending decisions this year, he said, as legislators have several years to spend the federal COVID aid. And if hospitals or the state's public health agency needs more money to combat the pandemic, the state's fiscal oversight board can dip into a reserve account the Legislature created last year specifically for COVID expenses. About $80 million remains in it, Simrill said.

House Democrats who called for a special session on Aug. 17 noted that since that news conference, more than 1,500 additional South Carolinians have died with COVID. 

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said he believes the Legislature could address the ban on using state money to enact or enforce a school mask mandate, despite GOP leaders saying the votes aren't there. Regardless, every legislator should want to "come back and deal with this health crisis" and make their stance public by voting, he said.

"It’s unfortunate that the House Republican Caucus has the time to meet in Columbia for lunch, but not to convene to address the ongoing and prolonged coronavirus pandemic," said Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews. 

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.