Clock runs out for S.C. priorities

The South Carolina House of Representatives is empty after the end of the term. Grace Beahm/Staff

COLUMBIA — Time expired on state lawmakers Thursday without a permanent fix for South Carolina’s nagging road problems, no ethics reform or a budget.

But there was lots of finger-pointing over who brought the Legislature to a halt, with representatives blaming an end-of-session filibuster in the Senate that stopped debate and votes on most legislative priorities in their tracks.

Nevertheless, the final day of the six-month session had its highlights.

Gov. Nikki Haley signed a domestic violence reform bill that stiffens penalties and, advocates hope, better protects victims of abusers.

And a law named for Walter Scott, the North Charleston driver shot in the back by a police officer, that eventually could equip more South Carolina law enforcement officers with body cameras received final approval and was sent to the governor’s desk for her signature. Scott’s killing was recorded by a passerby on his cellphone, leading to the officer being charged with murder and calls for police body cameras to be required.

The 2015 session ended at 5 p.m. with a lackluster bang of the gavel. State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, held a key slot as he sought to extend his three-week filibuster to prevent an increase in the gas tax to pay for a backlog of road and bridge improvements that some have estimated will cost more than $1 billion a year.

Davis noted, however, that Senate rules allow for cutting off his filibuster.

“At any time the president pro tem could’ve made the motion to carry over the capital reserve bill and we would’ve been on the gas tax bill,” Davis said. “If the Senate thinks that a member is not providing anything of value, the rules provide ways to sit them down.”

Thursday’s finish was not unlike previous years when time was allowed to run out in the final hours without taking up legislation that’s contested. Lawmakers will come back on June 16 for a special session to again take up the budget. The special session may not go any more smoothly than the regular session, though, because of disagreement over how to use a $415 million surplus. Opponents of raising the gas tax want it allocated entirely to roads, while other lawmakers would like to see it go toward building projects on state colleges. The new budget year starts July 1.

Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman assured that the state will have a budget by the start of the fiscal year.

Davis said Thursday he would not block the capital reserve bill, in which lawmakers will attempt to provide $25 million the Medical University of South Carolina needs to help finance a new $350 million children’s hospital on the peninsula.

MUSC said it needs sufficient “cash on hand” — at a minimum 10 percent of the total loan — to show the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that it can afford the new building.

As time wound down, Haley told reporters that the criminal domestic violence reform bill was a great accomplishment, but lawmakers had a great deal of unfinished business.

Among them was ethics reform touted by Haley that would create an independent panel to investigate complaints. Lawmakers currently police themselves when their conduct is challenged or allegations of criminal behavior are filed.

“It is four and a half years and we still have no ethics reform and that is something everybody has been talking about,” Haley said. “We didn’t have any resolution to the roads. We look at the fact you have a budget and a surplus of $415 million that we want to see how it is going to be spent.”

Some House lawmakers blamed the Senate for the foot-dragging at the end of the session.

“It looks like January right now,” state Rep. Seth Whipper, D-North Charleston, referring to the opening of the session with its long to-do list.

“They’ve gone down some rabbit holes, in my opinion, they didn’t need to go down,” Whipper said of the Senate.

The Senate spent the final weeks of the session debating how to spend the state’s cash reserves, and weighing roads funding and further restrictions on abortion.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, was less critical, pointing out that the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“Certainly we’re not as happy as we could have been, because our roads bill and our ethics bill did not come back from the Senate,” he said. “But that’s why we have two-year sessions.”

State Rep. Chip Limehouse said that was small consolation given how little the Legislature had accomplished so far.

“South Carolina is one big pothole and the General Assembly has done nothing to fix that,” said the Charleston Republican.