COLUMBIA — The state illegal immigration reform plan was given another rewrite Wednesday with changes that could put the Legislature back where it was about three weeks ago: in negotiations.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell feels more optimistic than he has in weeks about the legislation his chamber passed Wednesday after several hours of floor debate and about a dozen proposed amendments. The core changes were passed by a 80-33 vote. The bill now goes back to the Senate.
Meanwhile, Harrell's counterpart on the opposite side of the Statehouse, Sen. Glenn McConnell, isn't sure the changes will fly in the Senate because the new version of the bill removes key provisions — and penalties — from the Senate's plan.
The two Charleston Republicans have been leading their chambers through what almost everyone characterizes as the most divisive issue to hit state politics in years.
There two hang-ups: certain legislators, most vocally some Democrats, don't want the state to touch the matter; others, more privately, say they have a problem with the burden the legislation would place on South Carolina businesses.
In the latest version of the bill, the House wants to require all employers to use South Carolina driver's licenses or run the names and Social Security numbers of new hires through E-Verify, a free, online system offered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The House removed a third option designed by the Senate called S.C. Verify, a new paper document that would mirror the federal I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification Form, and is a provision of the Senate version.
The Senate wanted to fine employers up to $10,000 for every illegal worker on their payroll the third time they get caught. That version of the bill called for the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation to monitor and penalize employers who break the law.
Gov. Mark Sanford gave the debate pause after he argued that the Senate's proposed penalties would be unenforceable under federal law. The House agreed, developing new penalties and removing the creation of the state I-9.
The version the House voted on Wednesday would charge employers up to $500 per worker for not keeping records that the company verified an employee's legal status. Businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants would lose their licenses for up to 30 days. Professional licenses or corporate certifications, for example, would also apply because businesses licenses aren't required in all places in South Carolina.
The state Department of Revenue would conduct audits to make sure businesses are complying with verification standards, according to the House's plan. The new law would take effect in July 2009 if approved.
McConnell said, "I don't think the lighter penalties are going to sell well over here."
He has another bill poised in the Senate to become a new vehicle for the legislation in order to avoid a deadlock similar to the one House and Senate negotiators found themselves in last month. McConnell said the Senate staff is trying to devise a way to ensure the state is able to strongly enforce any immigration reform put into law.
Still, Harrell said the latest volley is progress.
"We moved the bill a little farther down the field," Harrell said.