As lawmakers seek to undo a permit allowing Georgia to expand its Savannah port, state House members on Wednesday unanimously approved legislation suspending the state environmental agency's authority on dredging decisions. Republicans and Democrats decried the decision as disastrous to the state's economy and environment, and gave a black eye to Gov. Nikki Haley, who's been under fire for asking her board chairman to hear the appeal. The House voted 111-0 to suspend the Department of Health and Environmental Control's ability to make dredging decisions, as of 2007. That's when legislators created the Savannah River Maritime Commission and gave it authority to represent South Carolina on navigability issues in the river shared with Georgia. But it wasn't consulted before DHEC awarded the permit in November, two months after agency staff denied it, citing unacceptable harm to the environment. Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey called the vote "an unfortunate over-step of the Legislature's authority."

USC wants to offer degree upgrade online

The University of South Carolina plans to offer students with two-year degrees the opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree through online courses. President Harris Pastides asked a House panel Wednesday for $5 million to launch South Carolina Palmetto College, which involves consolidating the administrations of the university's four regional campuses, and offering its graduates a chance to earn a four-year degree without relocating. Graduates of other two-year programs could also participate, he said. USC's board is expected to discuss the concept at its February meeting. Final approval may depend on funding. While some courses would be offered in the fall, the full rollout of Palmetto College is planned for fall 2013, provided that USC receives the additional $5 million in the state's 2012-13 budget, Pastides said.

Dead people's votes not linked to fraud

An initial review of allegations about votes cast under dead people's names reveals clerical errors and problems with records -- but doesn't indicate fraud, a top elections official told legislators Wednesday. Two weeks ago, Department of Motor Vehicles Executive Director Kevin Shwedo told legislators his agency's analysis of state voter ID data showed votes were cast under the names of 953 dead people over the past six years. He turned the issue over to state Law Enforcement and state Attorney General Alan Wilson. State Election Commission Executive Director Marci Andino joined calls for an investigation, but said Wednesday a look at 20 cases reviewed so far shows run-of-the-mill problems with dated records or sloppy practices, rather than fraud. The mistakes are unfortunate but not uncommon, Andino said. She said her agency will research all 953 names.

House asked to end DOT's driveway role

Residents should pay for their own driveway entrances, and the state road system needs to shrink so that South Carolina's transportation agency can put more money toward badly needed work on major roads and bridges, its director said Thursday. Secretary Robert St. Onge asked a House panel to suspend state law requiring his agency to install, maintain and remove the entrances of residents' driveways within the public right-of-way of state roads. Last fiscal year, the state spent $6 million on 9,945 driveway entrances on public property. But legislators said the state should provide residents with adequate access to their property. St. Onge also advocated for a proposal in Gov. Nikki Haley's executive budget that would put $75 million toward a buy-back program meant to incentivize counties and users of single-purpose roads to take over maintenance responsibility. Details on the voluntary system are yet to be worked out, which legislators said gave them heartburn.

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S.C. Republicans vow tougher union regs

South Carolina Republican lawmakers vowed Tuesday to get even tougher on unions in a state where union bashing is a marketing tool, with moves that critics call needless measures meant to incite GOP voters. Gov. Nikki Haley signed an executive order to ensure striking workers don't get unemployment benefits. But state law already clearly disqualifies striking workers from collecting unemployment benefits. Haley's order basically requires two of her Cabinet agencies to communicate about pending labor disputes. Also, the House GOP caucus introduced a bill strengthening the state's already tough "right to work" law. It would increase penalties for unions that break the law and require unions to submit detailed financial and membership data to the state's labor agency. Unions already must file the financial data to the federal Department of Labor, which can be accessed online, but Haley portrays the bill as needed transparency. South Carolina's 4.6 percent union membership ranks as seventh-least unionized nationwide.

Bill would toughen unemployment rules

Workers fired for misconduct would be unable to collect any unemployment benefits under legislation advanced by a Senate panel. A Senate Labor Commerce and Industry subcommittee on Wednesday approved a bill that would automatically deny benefits for misconduct. Currently, the state's unemployment agency reduces workers' benefits between five and 20 weeks, depending on the type of misconduct and severity. That allows them to also collect unemployment benefits through federal extensions after state-approved payments end at 20 weeks. The Department of Employment and Workforce paid out $50 million in benefits last fiscal year to fired workers. State law says workers fired for gross misconduct such as theft and alcohol use can't receive the benefits. But senators say the agency is abusing its discretion in some cases.