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Scoppe: Lawmaking gone mad? The other danger coronavirus poses to South Carolina

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Virus Outbreak-South Carolina

Several legislators chose to practice social distancing and sit in the balcony during Thursday's 90-minute session of the S.C. House. The House returned briefly to approve $45 million in emergency funds for state health officials to fight coronavirus. AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins

If you blinked, you missed it.

On Tuesday morning, H.4014 was just another obscure bill — it changed which state agency got to select state-owned property to be leased for geothermal exploration — that had been dying a slow death in a S.C. Senate committee since the House passed it 50 weeks earlier.

By early Thursday afternoon, it was a state law delivering $45 million in emergency appropriations to help the Department of Health and Environmental Control fight the coronavirus pandemic.

In the intervening hours, the Senate stripped out its original contents and replaced them with the DHEC funding, passed the bill and sent it back to the House, which agreed to the amendments and sent it to Gov. Henry McMaster. Who signed it within an hour.

It would have been over and done with Wednesday if House members had been in town.

Speaker Jay Lucas was taking only slight liberties when he explained to the House that, “The Senate has a magic way of being able to give two readings on a bill in one day.”

Scoppe Mug Shot (copy)

Cindi Ross Scoppe

Technically, senators gave the bill the second of three required readings on Tuesday and then, by unanimous consent, gave it an automatic final reading on Wednesday. The House routinely does the same with bills that haven’t been gutted and transformed. But the point is well taken.

The extreme legislative shortcut was defensible under the circumstances: DHEC needs the money to contain the spread of COVID-19, it needs it now, lawmakers have surplus money on hand, and they shouldn’t be hanging out at the Statehouse any longer than they have to. Also defensible was the Senate’s decision to strip another House bill of its contents and transform it into … the state budget.

A continuing resolution, actually, to keep state government operating under the terms of the current year’s budget if a new one isn’t passed before July 1. You know, just in case a national state of emergency bars them from returning to work. Senators gave it only tentative approval after some objected that sending it on to the House on Tuesday conveyed the wrong message, but they left the measure as little as an hour or two away from the governor’s desk.

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But while justified in the midst of a public-health crisis, those actions offer a crucial reminder of how easy it is for lawmakers to slice through the normal legislative process — a slow process by design — and make things happen … well, in that one eye blink. 

There’s a long tradition of legislators short-circuiting that slow process of careful vetting and dissent, by hollowing out one bill like a soon-to-be-stuffed bell pepper and inserting the contents of an entirely different one, as happened last week. Or adding only marginally related amendments to bills. Or — and this is the most abused and dangerous shortcut: using the state budget — the one bill legislators must pass every year — as a vehicle to pass laws that have nothing to do with the state budget.

This is never safe.

Sometimes the problem is merely that it allows laws to pass that don’t have enough support to pass on their own. This is how the Legislature opened our state to the nation’s nuclear waste. And hazardous waste. And medical waste.

Sometimes the new material simply doesn’t get vetted properly, so it ends up doing things no one imagined it would do.

Sometimes the new material is disguised by sponsors who manage to sneak through laws that the Legislature never would pass knowingly; this is, recall, the way the Legislature passed a bribery-tainted retroactive tax break, and legalized video gambling.

This year, with the legislative session significantly abbreviated — Mr. Lucas told representatives they’d likely be out the next two weeks, and probably a good bit longer — and with the prospects of a lot of difficult and complicated COVID-19 decisions ahead, the shortcuts could be more pervasive than ever.

The budget that the House passed this month doesn’t include a lot of temporary laws that have no business in a state budget, but it has some: a surcharge for dumping coal ash, for example, and a tax break for renewable-energy generators and a punishment for cities that choose to enforce parking meters past the hours legislators consider appropriate.

That number could increase exponentially as time runs out for lawmakers to pass all their pet bills and the budget passes through the Senate and then goes back to the House for what could be a single-day add-on session. Of all years, this is the one when legislative leaders and the governor have to be extra vigilant, and all of us have to watch the legislative minutia ... without blinking. Otherwise, the consequences could be dire.

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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