COLUMBIA — South Carolina's 2021 legislative session started with a law banning most abortions and ended with passage of bills expanding gun rights and resuming the death penalty.
As the regular session came to a close May 13, Democrats blasted the Republicans who dominate both chambers as prioritizing "red meat" issues for socially conservative primary voters over improving South Carolinians' lives.
But the Legislature's Republican leaders called it a hugely successful year as they completed efforts that have fallen short repeatedly, following an election that gave the House and Senate their largest GOP majorities ever.
"There were expectations that came along with that, and we delivered," Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said.
The Legislature accomplished much more that didn't get a lot of attention, he added.
"I know we started off with heartbeat (the anti-abortion law) and ended with guns, so there are social issues on the front and back. But we did a lot of big stuff in the middle," the Edgefield Republican said. "The reality is, we did a lot."
The Legislature managed to avoid, or even flat-out reject, issues that brought backlashes in other GOP-led states.
Bills calling for big election law changes in absentee and early voting went nowhere. Both chambers did pass bills on election oversight. But with their versions vastly different, whether they do anything on that front is a question for next year.
And legislators repeatedly rejected proposals on transgender youth in sports, prompting LGBTQ advocates to organize a daylong celebration May 16 in Columbia on the bills' non-passage.
Debate on bills can resume in January 2022 at wherever in the process they were when the gavel fell May 13. But anything that doesn't make it into law by the end of next year's session officially dies (South Carolina sessions officially last two years).
Here are highlights of what the Legislature did, didn't do and left hanging:
Legislators' main task for special sessions next month will be to pass a state budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.
The Senate passed a roughly $10.5 billion spending plan April 29 that includes a $1,000 pay boost for every teacher, a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for employees across state government and $44 million to further boost pay in 17 agencies, largely for law enforcement. It also includes more than $100 million for senators' special projects, identified thanks to a new Senate rule on public disclosure of earmarks.
The regular session ended with the House's budget-writing committee working on a response.
Democrats' main victories for the year could come in the budget and allocations of federal aid, Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said.
So far, that includes $100 million in the Senate budget plan for maintenance and renovations at poor schools. He also expects a big chunk of the $2.5 billion sent to the state from the latest federal aid package to be spent on extending broadband in rural areas. Discussions on how to spend that giant pot of federal taxes, which can be doled out over several years, haven't officially even started.
"Ultimately, this might have been a successful year. Right now, it’s a work in progress. We’ve accomplished very few things because that was not the priority set for us," Hutto said about the Senate's 30-Republican majority over 16 Democrats. "My frustration is, there were other things we didn’t need to do that got prioritized over things we need to do."
A measure banning abortions after an ultrasound detects a fetal heartbeat, as soon as six weeks into a pregnancy, moved swiftly through the Legislature. The ban gave exceptions for pregnancies that result from rape or incest, or if the mother's life is in jeopardy. Gov. Henry McMaster signed the bill into law moments after receiving it Feb. 18.
But whether it will ever take effect is doubtful.
As expected, the operators of the three clinics in South Carolina that provide abortions sued, and a federal judge blocked the ban, saying the law is unconstitutional and it's highly unlikely a higher court would rule otherwise. A fight in a higher court is exactly what many advocates wanted, in hopes the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually overturn its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
One bill wrapped up in the session's final week allows people with a concealed weapons permit to carry their handguns openly. The legislation, opposed by law enforcement officials, also bars the State Law Enforcement Division from charging anything for processing CWP applications. McMaster has promised to sign it.
Gun-control measures sponsored by Democrats went absolutely nowhere. That includes legislation to close the "Charleston loophole," which would give the FBI more time to complete background checks before guns are sold.
The so-called Charleston loophole came to light after the Emanuel AME Church shooting in June 2015.
In 2015, Dylann Roof went to buy a gun legally from a Midlands shop. The sale should not have gone through because he was legally prohibited from buying the weapon, but his background check failed to find an arrest report indicating his drug use.
Since the background check went unfinished after the three-day waiting period, Roof was able to obtain a .45-caliber Glock handgun, which he used to gun down nine people.
South Carolina college students must take a course in American history under a law signed April 28, which updated a 1924 state law colleges stopped following years ago.
The law mandates the course include reading the U.S. Constitution; the Declaration of Independence; the Emancipation Proclamation; at least five essays from the Federalist Papers; and at least one document considered "foundational to the African American freedom struggle," which the House added amid debate over whether and how to list the Reconstruction era.
Civil unrest around the nation helped propel a bill that's died repeatedly over the last eight years.
Other bills filed in the House and Senate would require at least 30 hours of instruction annually to middle and high school students about America's founding, to include the Revolutionary War, the events leading up to it and the ideals in the Constitution. While they generated public discussion, neither of those advanced.
A fast-tracked bill signed Feb. 19 provided more than $200 million from state reserves toward the vaccination effort. It was aimed at speeding up the process of getting available doses, then in short supply, into willing arms.
The biggest chunks went to the state's public health agency and the Medical University of South Carolina, with the rest split among other vaccine providers, to pay for whatever they needed to ramp up, including staffing, storage, security, facility rentals and transportation.
The fast-tracking of another bill in January to expand on the limited types of health care workers who could legally give shots in South Carolina prompted DHEC to make it happen without a law. But that regulatory waiver didn't go far enough for legislators, who added podiatrists to the list with a bill signed April 12.
A bill specifying how to dole out $272 million in federal aid for emergency rental assistance in the 39 counties that didn't get their own allotments from Congress was signed into law April 16. The program can cover back rent owed since mid-March 2020.
Legislators shielded employers from COVID-19 lawsuits with a bill promising "immunity from liability" if they follow safety guidance published by state health agencies. The law, signed April 28, applies retroactively to the beginning of the pandemic and is meant to make it much harder for people to sue over where they may have contracted the virus.
A priority of the state Chamber of Commerce, the bill passed both chambers overwhelmingly, though many legislators argued it's unnecessary since it's very difficult, if not downright impossible, to prove where someone caught COVID-19.
The Legislature mandated that all K-12 public schools offer a full week of face-to-face learning by April 26.
By the time that law passed, after weeks of debate, only a few districts weren't already offering full weeks in the classroom to all grades.
Beyond ensuring in-classroom learning continues next school year, the law also does a couple of things praised by teachers: It ensures teachers get paid more money if they're required to work double duty in teaching students in person and virtually. And it allows districts to rehire retired teachers at a salary of up to $50,000 a year, for three years, without losing their pension payments.
Currently, rehired public employees who come back lose their pension for the rest of the year after hitting a $10,000 salary cap. Lifting that cap is seen as a way to help fill teacher vacancies and help catch students up post-pandemic.
In March, the Legislature sent $9 million to public charter schools to cover their enrollment increases amid the pandemic and provided up to $50 million to retroactively restore the salary bumps teachers normally receive for another year of experience. The so-called step increases, which average 2 percent, were frozen when the Legislature didn't pass a new budget during the pandemic's economic uncertainties.
While not completed, the state budget for 2021-22 is expected to finish expanding state-paid, full-day 4-year-old kindergarten statewide — 15 years after legislators created the program as a pilot for poor districts that sued the state over education spending. The Senate plan spends $47 million toward that expansion, which McMaster also included in his spending proposal.
Massey said one of his biggest disappointments of the session was the Senate not tackling police training and reform issues, something that he pledged amid last year's protests would be a priority.
On the session's final day, the House sent the Senate a police reform bill to set minimum standards, including on "no knock" warrants and officers' duty to intervene if they see a colleague do something wrong. It also bars chokeholds unless it's absolutely necessary to save a life and creates an "early warning" system designed to track bad behavior in an effort to prevent an officer fired for misconduct from getting hired by another department.
The compromise, worked out between Reps. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, and Republican Chris Wooten, R-Lexington, was added to a bill requiring any officer who hasn't completed training to be accompanied by a certified officer while on duty.
It didn't go nearly far enough for some Democrats, and the American Civil Liberties Union sent a news release after the vote complaining the legislation will not stop police violence. But the bill passed the House 100-13.
That puts it in the Senate's court to decide what, if anything, advances on that front next year.
Looking ahead on other undone issues
A bill legalizing medical marijuana made it to the Senate floor in late March, but it was never debated further.
Massey promised Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who's been the chief advocate for years, the Senate will take it up in 2022.
While not making any predictions on the outcome, "my commitment is, it’s going to get a vote," Massey said May 13.
Also on the Senate calendar for next year is a bill adding up to five years of prison time for violent criminals who choose their target out of hatred. South Carolina is among just two states without a hate crime law.
After the session concluded May 13, the state Chamber of Commerce held a news conference to thank legislators for getting it closer to passage and to urge the Senate to send it to the governor early in 2022.