The South Carolina Statehouse. Andrew Brown/Staff

COLUMBIA — The South Carolina Senate used the first hours of the new legislative session to send a message to the governor's office and wrest back control of key appointments in the state government. 

In the first action of 2019, a Senate judiciary panel advanced a bill limiting when Gov. Henry McMaster and his successors can appoint someone temporarily to a state agency or board without Statehouse consent. 

The move comes more than six months after McMaster temporarily put Charlie Condon at the head of Santee Cooper, the state's only publicly owned electric utility. 

The Senate had failed to consider Condon for the full-time position last year and contested McMaster's unilateral action to seat him on the utility's board of directors after the session ended.

The S.C. Supreme Court ruled current state law allowed McMaster to appoint Condon, a former state attorney general, as the interim chairman.  

The Senate isn't wasting any time changing that law this year. Sen. Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, and other lawmakers want to ensure the governor can't temporarily appoint someone the Senate passed on or failed to confirm during a session. 

Without a change to the law, Massey worries the governor's office could repeatedly appoint someone to lead a state agency or commission without ever getting the Senate's OK.

"I think it's important to ensure that the Senate's advice and consent role is preserved," Massey said. 

At the same time, Massey said Senators need to move more quickly to consider and vote on appointments that McMaster sends to them.

The new bill sailed through the judiciary panel where other bills often bog down. The five senators on the panel voted unanimously for it after less than 15 minutes of debate, a sign of how strongly they feel about the issue. 

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, said the recent Supreme Court ruling made it necessary for the Senate to preserve its power to accept or reject the governor's appointments. 

The governor, Campsen said, was not given free rein to appoint whoever he wants. The change, he said, is essential to preserving the separation of powers between the governor's office and the legislature. 

"We have no option but to address this issue," he said. 

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Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.