File Statehouse exterior (copy)

The South Carolina Statehouse. File/AP

COLUMBIA — South Carolina's legislative session starting Tuesday is expected to focus on reforming the state's long-ignored K-12 schools with a boost in teacher pay and a closer look at how districts perform.

But other issues — as well as a few lawmakers — will grab headlines through May. Here's a look: 

Santee Cooper: In a session that lasts just five months, something has to give. And that something appears to be the proposed sale of state-run electric utility Santee Cooper. Gov. Henry McMaster wants to sell the Moncks Corner power provider that carries $8 billion in debt, half from its portion of the failed nuclear reactors north of Columbia. A consultant is lining up potential buyers. But lawmakers previewing the session with reporters last week said they did not see an appetite in the General Assembly to sell Santee Cooper, especially after spending the last session resolving how much S.C. Electric & Gas could charge customers for the partially built reactors.

Colleges: While K-12 schools will get the bulk of attention, lawmakers are ready to tackle college tuition that is the highest in the Southeast. Senate leaders from each side of the aisle, expected-Senate President Harvey Peeler and two-time Democratic gubernatorial nominee Vincent Sheheen, are pushing a bill that would cap tuition hikes for in-state students and use internet sales taxes to provide more money for public colleges that have seen their share of state funding drop since the Great Recession. 

Bag bans: Another effort is expected to stop more South Carolina cities from passing bans on plastic bags from retailers and foam containers from restaurants. Coastal towns see plastics creating a littering problem for shorebirds and wildlife. Businesses think customers will not want the extra cost and inconvenience. A proposal last year passed the House before dying in the Senate.

Flooding fix: A trio of Charleston-area senators — Democrat Marlon Kimpson and Republicans Chip Campsen and Sandy Senn — want to use tax money collected from hotels to help pay to fix flooding problems in tourist areas. Normally hotel taxes are used to promote events, build convention centers and buy ads. Different proposals to use the money for water-logged streets passed in the House and Senate last year, but negotiators could not reach a deal before the session ended.

Who to watch

Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter — The new chairman of the House Ways and Means committee will get tested as he oversees a record-high $9 billion state budget, but he has the backing of House leadership after the ouster of former chairman Brian White.

Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster — The Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor is ready for a bigger role on her side of the aisle, moving into the Judiciary Committee vice chairman seat held by her running mate James Smith, who has left the Legislature.

Rep. Russell Fry, R-Surfside Beach — The 33-year-old Grand Strand lawyer is moving up the ladder in his third term in Columbia, becoming the majority whip, a potential stepping stone for a top leadership role. 

Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney — He will take over the Senate as it wrangles over new rules with a law change that ended the lieutenant governor presiding over the chamber, while keeping an eye on his predecessor, Hugh Leatherman, who is still overseeing the budget.

Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston — His hours-long filibuster last year stopped a bill that would have outlawed almost all abortions in the state, and now the outspoken attorney is championing the rights of the mentally ill after two patients drowned in the back of a crashed Horry County sheriff's van.

Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia — The former state Democratic Party chairman enters the Statehouse for the first time with years of political experience and a no-holds-barred attitude that will make the Senate worth watching.

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Columbia Bureau Chief

Andy Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.

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