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Scoppe: As problems mount with COVID-19 response, SC gets speeches, meaningless gestures

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South Carolina Voting

Protesters from conservative organizations, including the Greenville TEA Party and S.C. Patriots for Liberty, gather without masks outside the Statehouse Tuesday to demand an end to mask mandates and restrictions on gatherings. (AP Photo/Michelle Liu)

The dozens of unmasked protesters crowded together Tuesday outside the S.C. Statehouse to greet the long-awaited return of the Legislature denounced the COVID “hoax” and demanded freedom from the oppression of a dictatorial governor who … um … was one of the last in the nation to order anybody to stay home … and then only a few people … and for only a few weeks … and who, since the doctors admitted that wearing masks helps, has steadfastly refused to make most people mask up.

They can be forgiven for spouting nonsense, if not for their defiant determination to expose themselves and others to infection. They are in a decided minority, as even most South Carolinians who are angry about largely unenforced local mask mandates acknowledge that COVID-19 has killed 3,000 people in our state alone.

What’s difficult to forgive is the sound and fury inside the Statehouse that similarly signified nothing.

In the upper chamber, Senate Republican Leader Shane Massey — egged on by fellow senators on the left and right — kicked off Wednesday’s session with a broadside against Gov. Henry McMaster’s failure to tell us “what the end game is” and keep within the confines of his emergency powers and over inconsistencies in his restrictions: limits on the number of people in entertainment venues but not Walmart, mask requirements for people walking from the restaurant doors to their table and then back to the doors, but not in most other businesses.

z-Scoppe Mug Shot (copy)

Cindi Ross Scoppe

There were no such 40-minute speeches in the House, but a quieter action, the introduction of a joint resolution requiring school districts to offer in-person classes five days a week, set the stage for a rebellion this coming week that promises no more substance.

The Post and Courier’s Seanna Adcox reports that the House will debate and likely pass H.5579, which requires districts to provide face-to-face classes. But only as long as the governor continues to declare states of emergency. It also directs state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman to “enforce the provisions of this Joint Resolution to ensure full compliance by all public school districts.” Without providing any sort of penalty, or mechanism of enforcement, for noncompliance.

But those problems could be remedied with an even moderately well-thought-out amendment. The main problem with the resolution is that it’s all but impossible for it to become law. Because representatives didn’t set the wheels in motion this past week, the soonest it could clear the House is Wednesday, and then only with unanimous consent.

And even if that happened, it could only pass the Senate if it arrived while the Senate was still in session Wednesday and the Senate agreed unanimously to waive its own rules. And extend the session to Friday. And if the House agreed with that.

Which is to say that the resolution is not a serious effort but merely the sort of “message” that Sen. Shane Martin said lawmakers need to send the governor. Or … someone.

What makes all this so frustrating is that lawmakers identified real problems that need some legislative attention.

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It’s that kids really do need the opportunity — which more districts could safely provide to more of them — even if not to all of them, to be in the classroom five days a week.

It’s that even if the governor does have the power to issue rolling states of emergency into perpetuity, emergency powers are blunt and limited, most significantly by the inability to change state law, which senators insist Mr. McMaster effectively has done with by changing tax deadlines, professional license requirements and alcohol restrictions — all reasonable actions but all potentially at risk in a legal challenge.

It’s that Mr. Massey is absolutely right when he says “there’s been very little, if any, legislative input as to what’s going on” and “the statute contemplates that there will be legislative input” and the emergency powers law written to deal with natural disasters doesn’t fit pandemics, which require more nuanced responses, and last for six months, and counting.

Many legislators say Mr. McMaster has done an excellent job keeping them looped in, so Mr. Massey’s complaint likely reflects on his personal relationship with the governor.

But the larger point, the one that’s been ignored for the past six months, as Senate President Harvey Peeler and House Speaker Jay Lucas assumed greater control over whether the Legislature even meets, is that there’s a huge difference between the governor consulting with a handful of legislators and the Legislature speaking, which it does only when it passes laws.

It’s only through passing laws that anyone can require schools to make room for more children in the classroom and give the governor more appropriate tools for managing the pandemic.

And unfortunately serious legislation to accomplish those goals — which would require some serious thought and debate — isn’t even being considered, as lawmakers instead content themselves with “messages” that are no more effective than the powerless protests outside the Statehouse.

Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at cscoppe@postandcourier.com or follow her on Facebook or Twitter  @cindiscoppe.

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