COLUMBIA — Big business was a big winner in the South Carolina legislative session that technically ended Thursday, while little else on legislators' priority lists made it to the finish line.
Bills that passed before the gavel fell at 5 p.m. gives Darlington Raceway a sales tax break on its renovation, sets a 90-day deadline for environmental challenges to building permits, and prevents residents from suing existing industries over noise or smells they're licensed to emit.
Business leaders took a loss when a bill preventing communities from unilaterally enacting their own bans on single-use plastic bags offered by retailers died.
But they scored a victory with seconds to spare Thursday when the Senate approved asking voters in November whether the state superintendent of education should be appointed by the governor instead of being elected. For more than a decade, the House has repeatedly approved that idea, pushed by former Govs. Mark Sanford and Nikki Haley, and now Gov. Henry McMaster, but the Senate had killed it.
Schools are "the pipeline of South Carolina's future workforce," state Chamber of Commerce President Ted Pitts said. "The state's chief executive ought to pick and be held accountable for what happens to education in South Carolina."
Another last-minute win for the chamber was a bill allowing more ex-cons to get minor, nonviolent convictions, such as drug possession, erased from their criminal records. While law enforcement officials opposed the bi-partisan effort, state business leaders backed it as helping employers fill openings, as it helps those who served their time become tax-paying employees, since a criminal record can be an obstacle in hiring. That can particularly be a problem for businesses amid historically low unemployment rates.
Meanwhile, none of the bills dealing with the fallout of the failed nuclear power plant in Fairfield County have made it to McMaster's desk, even though legislators began the session in January calling the debacle their top priority.
They will, however, get another crack at those proposals in special, two-day sessions set for later this month and after next month's primaries.
Other work remaining for the limited sessions includes finalizing an $8 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. They can also consider whether — and if so, how — to align the state's tax code to the federal overhaul passed by Congress. No matter what they decide would create tax winners and losers.
"Tax conformity is the biggest issue out there that nobody knows about, but I can promise you they will know about it when they go to file their taxes," said House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville.
Proposals that died with the regular session include all bills dealing with guns — whether expanding concealed carry laws, strengthening background checks or limiting sales. Also failing to pass were various proposals for increasing safety at schools in the wake of the mass shooting at a Florida high school and bills legalizing medical marijuana.
One major loss for big business was a proposal attempting to bar local governments from banning plastic bags and foam containers. After narrowly passing the House, the bill barely made it out of a Senate committee last month. It died without ever getting a vote on the Senate floor.
The Coastal Conservation League thanked legislators of both parties who fought the bill as state overreach.
"Our communities should celebrate today," said Emily Cedzo with the league. "This is a victory for all of us."
The bill would have grandfathered in local laws in four beachside towns approved before Jan. 31. The bill could draw more opposition if it's reintroduced next year, as additional rules take effect. The most expansive rules so far were approved last month for Mount Pleasant.
The law creating the special sessions specifically allows legislators to keep debating bills related to the canceled V.C. Summer nuclear power project. South Carolina Electric & Gas and state-owned Santee Cooper jointly spent $9 billion on two partially built reactors before abandoning them last summer, sparking outrage from customers who have been funding the project since 2009.
Both the House and Senate passed bills temporarily cutting SCE&G customers' electric bills. But they can't agree by how much. The House insists on eliminating all 18 percent that goes toward the debacle, while senators want a 13 percent cut, saying the utility can survive that amount.
Legislators could also decide whether to repeal the 2007 state law that allowed SCE&G to bill customers upfront, and whether to create a consumer advocate to represent utility customers in regulatory cases — including the one later this year that could permanently remove the failed project from SCE&G bills.
Proposals designed to expand solar power in South Carolina failed.
"We missed an opportunity to get at the heart of problems in South Carolina — to let big utilities make decisions that are not in our best interest," said Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort. "We didn't do anything to crack that monopoly."
Andy Brown contributed to this story.