Palmetto Sunrise: Legislature corruption probe outtakes (copy)

The first half of South Carolina's legislative session officially wrapped up Thursday, although lawmakers will return to Columbia periodically throughout the summer.

With apologies to Gamecocks fans, you could call the 2019 legislative session the “wait ’til next year” year.

It was supposed to be the year the S.C. General Assembly made huge strides in public education. Maybe next year.

It was supposed to be the year lawmakers finally fixed Santee Cooper. Maybe we’ll get something resolved on that this fall. Or next year.

Or the next.

The one clear success of the session that wrapped up Thursday was on the environmental front. A bill to encourage the growth of both commercial and rooftop solar energy, several years in the making, finally passed the Senate on Wednesday. The bill, which now goes to Gov. Henry McMaster for his expected signature, will help South Carolina reduce its reliance on carbon-based energy and should also nudge us in the direction of breaking the stranglehold that monopoly utility companies have on the state.

Still time to act

In addition, depending on what happens in a House-Senate conference committee, the Legislature still could include a one-year proviso in the state budget that would stymie efforts to explore for oil and natural gas off our coast.

And a bill to require state and local governments to assist offshore exploration stalled, as did a bill to ban local governments from banning plastic bags; it seems clear that the Senate would kill both bills if the House tries to revive them next year.

All that is good news not only for the environment but for the coastal tourism that drives our state’s economy.

As for improving our ethics and campaign finance laws, stabilizing our state pension system, injecting some sanity into our gun laws, reforming our tax system and treating local governments like governments rather than unruly stepchildren, lawmakers didn’t even give us much hope for next year.

When less is more

The best we can say is that they didn’t do any additional damage in most areas: They didn’t loosen gun restrictions even more, they didn’t create any more major tax loopholes or make any more major tax cuts that we can’t afford, they didn’t weaken our ethics law, they didn’t impose any new restrictions on local governments; they’re even poised to reduce the gap between the amount of money they’ve promised to provide cities and counties and the amount they actually provide — although at the price of locking that lower level into state law.

But they still could exacerbate our pension problems, if Senate negotiators go along with a proviso in the House version of the budget that makes it easier for retirees to come back to work while still drawing their pensions.

Although we’re disappointed by the failure to make those promised strides on education and Santee Cooper, the good news is that lawmakers are likely to make a solid down payment on both when they return to Columbia the week after next for a three-day wrap-up session.

And they’ve laid the groundwork for even more improvement in education next year.

Small steps on education

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The House and Senate both have voted to raise starting pay for teachers from $30,000 last year to $35,000 next year, to increase pay for all teachers by 4 percent — the largest single-year raise for teachers since 1982 — and, in response to complaints from teachers and many parents, to eliminate standardized tests that are not required by federal law. Those changes are aimed at reversing the growing teacher shortage.

The budget also will increase funding for school resource officers and social workers in schools and provide tens of millions of dollars for maintenance and infrastructure improvement in some of South Carolina’s poorest school districts.

Senate leaders promise to work through the summer on a House-passed bill that addresses some of teachers’ specific complaints — including a permanent deletion of those three extra tests and a requirement that teachers have a 30-minute student-free period each day. Delaying full Senate debate on the bill until January should allow senators to re-insert ethics and accountability measures that they stripped from the bill in futile hopes of getting it passed this year. And a long-needed study of the state’s arcane school-funding system that was finally released on Thursday should add a crucial new dimension to the reform efforts.

More nuclear fallout

A lot also could happen over the summer and fall regarding the future of Santee Cooper, the state-owned utility that blew through $4 billion on two new nuclear reactors that will never be completed.

The Senate finally passed a bill earlier this month to have the state Department of Administration take bids for purchasing all or part of Santee Cooper or taking over its management.

Depending on how the House and Senate resolve slight differences in their versions of the bill, those bids could come in later this year, and the Legislature could be required to take an up-or-down vote within 60 days on whatever the agency says is the best deal.

We remain skeptical that selling the utility would inherently be in the long-term best interest of ratepayers, but we hope we’re wrong; the only way we’ll ever find out is to take bids.

There is much reason to be disappointed about this year’s legislative session, but there has been enough progress and promise on important matters to give us some hope for a successful-two year session. We aren’t all Gamecocks, but we’re all South Carolinians, which means optimism is in our DNA: Dum spiro spero.

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